My media training clients often tell me they don’t trust reporters because they use “sleazy” tactics to coax information from them.
When I hear that, I ask my clients this question: “Are there ever times you tell your colleagues something behind closed doors that you’d rather not share with the reporter?”
They always say yes.
That’s when I remind them that a reporter’s job is to find out what they’re saying privately. Journalists want to know the things you know but would rather not tell them. It’s not necessarily sleazy. It’s just their job.
Of course, your job as a spokesperson is different. You want to enhance your company’s reputation, sell more products, advocate a point-of-view, or pass a new law. Your goal is to say enough to maintain your credibility, but not so much that you do yourself harm.
Below are five intimidating tactics reporters use to get information out of you—and five ways to defeat their cleverly-laid traps.
1. “I’m on deadline and need an answer now”
Reporters know that the more time you have to prepare for an interview, the less likely it is you’ll say something damaging. So they’ll try to catch you off-guard, calling you 30 minutes before their “deadline.” They’ll say they need an answer now—and if you refuse, they’ll unsubtly threaten to tell their audience you refused to comment.
Don’t bite. Calmly tell them you’re eager to cooperate, but that you’re in the middle of something and need a half-hour to finish. Spend those 30 minutes crafting your messages and anticipating the likeliest tough questions before returning the call.
2. “It’ll look bad if you don’t tell me”
Reporters may try to intimidate you by inferring you will look guilty if you don’t share confidential information with them. To be sure, there are times they’re right.
But there are many legitimate reasons to withhold information: Companies may withhold proprietary intellectual property (Coke has never revealed its formula), private firms can withhold financial data, and many organizations can refuse to disclose personnel records. Just avoid saying, “no comment,” and instead tell reporters why you can’t go into greater detail on those topics.
3. Dead air
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who just keeps looking at you when you’ve finished talking? Most people feel awkward and start talking again to fill the silence.
Reporters bank on that awkward dynamic and know you’ll say the most damaging things after you’ve finished your “official” answer. Instead of falling into this trap, just remain quiet after your official answer, or say something like, “That’s the main point. What other questions can I answer for you?”
4. Accelerating the tempo
In an attempt to force a mistake, reporters may try to increase your stress level. They’ll start the interview slowly with the easy questions, then gradually (almost imperceptibly) quicken the pace until you feel stressed and out of control.
There are two things you can do to help control the tempo. First, pause for a moment before answering each question. Second, if you’re being rushed, tell the reporter, “That’s an important point, and I’ll need more than a couple of seconds to answer it.”
5. Space invaders
For live, on-air interviews, reporters may invade your space to fluster you. They’ll move their chair within inches of yours, stand nose-to-nose with you, or use a height advantage to make you feel small.
Survive the space invader simply by recognizing his or her tactics. Remember that your conversation should be with the audience-not a physically imposing reporter-and direct every word to the man watching television in his bedroom or the woman watching from her living room sofa.
Brad Phillips is author of “The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.” He is also the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this article originally appeared.