Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
One of the great skills of dealing with the media is knowing how to shut down toxic, left-field or highly speculative questions without being evasive, or worse still, becoming combative.
Often in media training sessions we see executives and business professionals who successfully shut down dangerous questions without saying too much, but then suddenly crack when they're asked a follow up question.
It’s important to note that a good journalist will typically ask the same question in a variety of ways, and they’ll try three or four times before they reluctantly move on.
So your job is not done once you shut down a left-field question. You should be on alert because you’ve given the reporter no choice but to dig a little harder.
When you shut the door on a particular line of question, it's important to make sure the door is locked. If you leave the door ajar - by commenting even slightly – you may find the subsequent story reflects badly on you or the organisation you represent.
So how do you effectively shut down questions you can’t, or shouldn’t, respond to?
Well, you can never control what a reporter asks you in a media interview, but you can control how you respond.
If you truly don’t know the answer to a specific question, it's often best to just say so. How can you possibly comment on something that you're not aware of?
It's also never a good idea to dodge a reporter’s question and revert to a rehearsed message. That’s pure avoidance and a reporter will always drag you back, as UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn discovered recently in this awkward exchange.
Corbyn's biggest problem is that his views on Brexit are ambiguous and the media has started zeroing in on him for a definitive answer. As a result, he continues to dodge and weave his way through media interviews and he looks shady.
It could all have been avoided if he stopped sitting on the fence - and showed respect for the question, without being vexatious.
You do that by bridging - using a set of words that shows you've heard what's been asked, followed by a conjunction, or connecting word, like AND, SO, BUT, HOWEVER, BECAUSE and ALTHOUGH to transition to a safer message. Sometimes it's as simple as saying ACTUALLY.
So how might bridging work for you in a media interview?
Well, it's a critical technique that anyone who deals with the media should have in their communications toolkit. It's a big idea, but with practice it can make you a more credible and persuasive communicator.
For example, you might be asked about an issue that's outside your realm of responsibility. You can't ignore the question because that would be avoidance. Using bridging phrases can help.
You might say: “That’s not something I can help you with BECAUSE my focus is...” before gently guiding the reporter back to the topic at hand.
When it's something you are expected to know about, but you can’t comment, you need to give a reporter a reason why you can’t comment.
Some useful bridging phrases might be:
"You'd understand that we don't comment on those sorts of issues for commercial reasons, HOWEVER..." Or:
“I understand your interest in that BUT it's really too early to be commenting..." Or:
“It would be inappropriate for me to speculate, ALTHOUGH..."
Or if an idea is put to you that you don't agree with you could say: "ACTUALLY we see things a little differently..." and then reframe the discussion your way.
Once you've dealt with a difficult question, you need to always ‘bridge’ back to your strategic message - the reason you're doing a media interview in the first place.
It's all about showing that you've heard the question put to you, before taking the conversation somewhere more relevant to you.
Remember though, reporters can see through spin. So it's important that you are authentic, natural and helpful. If you get annoyed or argumentative, a reporter will smell blood in the water and will have no fear asking a string of tough questions.
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