Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
Nothing infuriates a reporter – or an audience watching on TV – more than someone who deliberately avoids a direct question.
We’ve all seen it: high-flying business executives or politicians who think they're clever ignoring what's being asked of them and instead divert to an annoying, off-topic message.
The worst example of avoidance I've ever seen involves Stephen Bates, the former European boss of Research In Motion, which later became Blackberry. It's a few years old, but as far as train-wreck media interviews go, it's a corker.
Three times he was asked a legitimate question: "What went wrong" for the company to lose so much market share?
Three times he blatantly avoided the question and talked about how excited he was about the company’s new Blackberry 10.
It was the right idea to want to just focus on the positives, but it was clumsy technique that annoyed the reporter and viewers at home.
Bates also sounded like he was in denial in a radio interview later that day when he was asked what the company had learned from its biggest rival, Apple.
Again, he deliberately avoided the issue, which saw the intensity of the questioning ramp up.
As we touched on in a recent blog on bridging, a reporter can ask you anything they like in a media interview.
Your job is to deal with the question as quickly and as painlessly as possible, before taking the conversation elsewhere.
For example, Bates could have said: “Well, certainly we’ve had some challenges...”
That would have at least signalled to the reporter that their question had been heard.
Rather than spend too much time focusing on the problems, he could then have 'bridged' by saying something like: “BUT we are working hard as an organisation to deliver the best products, the best service and the best experience for our customers.”
That would have allowed him to springboard naturally to the strategic message he wanted to get out.
When asked to comment on what he learned from Apple, he could have diffused the question by responding with something like this: "We are always learning, that's the nature of the business we're in."
And then he could have gone on to talk about how they had turned those lessons into reality for customers with a new product, Blackberry 10.
By repeatedly dodging the reporter’s question, he sounded shady and untrustworthy. His responses didn't make sense.
As the clip above shows, the TV reporter kept dragging him back because she knew her question was being ignored. And the radio presenter became so annoyed he said: “It sounds like you’re reading from a press release”.
As a result, it was Bates' shambolic media performance that became the story the next day – not the product he was there to talk about.
We always suggest you treat a media interview as a strategic conversation. If you are asked a left-field question, you need to deal with it (not necessarily engage in it) before redirecting the conversation.
It’s like any normal human conversation but with many more tripwires that you need to navigate.
For example, imagine if you asked your boss for holiday leave and his or her response was what a lovely day it was outside. You would think it a little peculiar.
You'd probably ask again and again until you got a reasonable response, becoming more agitated the more your question was being ignored.
It’s really no different in a media interview. Just a lot more high stakes when you get it wrong.
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