A prime-time TV interview can be a golden opportunity—or go over like a lead balloon.
In her appearance Sunday night on “60 Minutes,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ goal was to highlight the Trump administration’s views on education policy and school choice.
Instead, one stunningly flat-footed exchange went viral almost immediately, calling into question her knowledge about public schools, school choice and the very agency she leads.
According to CNN, White House officials were “alarmed” by her sit-down with veteran CBS journalist Lesley Stahl.
Here’s how leaders and spokespersons can better prepare for challenging interviews with six takeaways for PR pros looking to avoid a similar calamity:
1. Prepare for follow-up questions.
Devos defended her school voucher initiatives, under which state money is reallocated from a public school to a tuition voucher, by pointing to successes in Florida:
Stahl: Why take away money from that school that’s not working, to bring them up to a level where they are, that school is working?
DeVos: Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in school, school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems. And it…
Stahl: Okay. But what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working? What about those kids?
DeVos: Well, in places where there have been, where there is, a lot of choice that’s been introduced—Florida, for example, the studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually, the results get better, as well.
The answer above was good, in that she offered a specific example about Florida that helped to prove her broader point. However, she set herself up for an inevitable follow-up about her own home state, in which school choice offers a poorer example. That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem—if the interviewee is prepared for the question with a credible argument.
Stahl: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.
DeVos: Michigan, yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.
Stahl: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?
DeVos: I don’t know. Overall, I, I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.
2. Challenge the premise of the question.
Stahl’s question presupposed that the option to choose a different school is directly responsible for the decline of public schools overall. DeVos could have challenged that premise by pointing out that each state has different laws, education models and policymakers with discrete priorities, which makes it unfair to compare one state directly against another.
Alternatively, she might have pointed out that many factors explain why a school system might sink or rise and that pointing to school choice alone offers an incomplete picture.
Instead, she said she didn’t know, not only erasing the good from her Florida example, but sowing doubts about her knowledge on the topic in general. Rather than closing the door on this line of questioning, her uninspired response left it open—and Stahl noticed. DeVos’ admitted ignorance is particularly surprising, as she and her family have given millions of dollars to school choice efforts in Michigan.
Stahl: The whole state is not doing well.
DeVos: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this, the students are doing well and…
Stahl: No, but your argument, that if you take funds away that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.
3. Maintain your poise.
By this point in the interview, DeVos’ body language shifted from open and warm to closed and tense with pursed lips, making her discomfort obvious to even the most casual observer.
DeVos: I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.
Stahl: The public schools here are doing worse than they did.
DeVos: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.
DeVos failed to advance an argument. She could have talked about how her policies might improve Michigan’s public and private schools; instead, she merely agreed with Stahl and conveyed a sense of weariness.
Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?
DeVos: I have not, I have not, I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.
5. Understand that every answer offers another opportunity.
If her body language shifted moments earlier, her language became uneasy here, too. She stammered, “I have not,” three times in a row. Her choosing the word intentionally seemed odd here. (Might a secretary of education unintentionally visit a bad school?) She appeared to be on the ropes by this point and understood that the interview wasn’t going her way.
However, every question offers another opportunity to provide a solid answer—and it’s imperative not to let previous interviewing errors compound themselves by getting too far inside your head while the interview is in progress. You can self-flagellate when it’s over, but never while the camera is still on.
6. Realize that editing can make a bad moment sting even worse.
Stahl: Maybe you should.
DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.
Some conservatives have complained that DeVos was the victim of media bias, selective editing and an unfair interviewer. Yes, the raw video might be kinder than the edited version, but Stahl is in her third decade with “60 Minutes” and has long been regarded as an incisive interviewer. Both she and “60 Minutes” are known quantities, and DeVos accepted the interview.
Forewarned is forearmed—at least it should be.
Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: ” The Media Training Bible” and “ 101 Ways to Open a Speech.”