In 1999, upon reporting for my first Sunday shift at CNN, I was invited into a “question” meeting with Wolf Blitzer and his executive producer.
The three of us sat around for 15 minutes, coming up with questions for former Vice President Dan Quayle, who was mounting a bid for the 2000 GOP nomination.
We developed a seemingly impressive list of questions, but I noticed that the questions all fit inside certain categories. Some questions were intended to be “stumpers”; others called for speculation.
That taught me an important lesson. Spokespersons don’t have to prepare for every possible question. They simply must prepare for every type of question. Below, you’ll find the types of questions reporters always seem to ask—and how to answer them with ease.
1. Questions you don’t know the answer to
Many of our trainees get stumped during a live interview when they’re asked a question to which they don’t know the answer.
For example, a physician might be asked, “How many people are diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer each year?” If she doesn’t know the answer, she might stumble before finally saying, “I don’t know.”
There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know”—but there’s a better way to handle that question during friendly interviews. Click here to see the “Peter Jennings Rule.”
2. Questions that call for speculation
Imagine you’re an advocate trying to pass a piece of legislation. You’re being interviewed when the reporter suddenly asks, “So, what’s the bottom line? Is this law going to pass?”
Don’t take the bait. If you guess wrong, reporters will be able to use your quote against you forever, and your credibility may take a hit.
Stick with the facts. Answer by saying something like, “Well, we have more support for the bill than we’ve ever had before, and we are more hopeful than ever that we can get this passed.”
If pressed again, you can follow up with, “Well, although I can’t speculate, I can tell you that….”
3. Questions that ask for your personal opinion
Whole Foods Chairman and CEO John Mackey sparked a customer rebellion in 2009 when he wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal opposing President Obama’s health care reform proposal.
He defended himself days later, by writing, “I was asked to write an op-ed piece, and I gave my personal opinions…Whole Foods as a company has no official position on the issue.”
When you are identified as a spokesperson for a company, group, or organization, there’s no such thing as a personal opinion. The media will identify you as a representative of your organization. Period.
Therefore, do not offer a personal opinion. Instead, say, “Well, I’m speaking for the organization, not myself, and what we believe is….”
Just how important is that? Ask Mr. Mackey. He has some free time now that he’s out as chairman.
4. Yes or no questions
“This is a simple yes or no—aren’t your financial forecasts occasionally wrong?”
During our media training sessions, I almost always trap a trainee with a “yes or no” question. Here’s why they’re so insidious: They almost always have an obvious answer, and everyone watching the interview knows it. But if you answer with a direct “yes or no,” the resulting quote will be awful.
Let’s say you answer the question by saying, “Yes, sometimes our forecasts are wrong, but they’re right a lot more often than they’re wrong.” The resulting news story will almost certainly read, “When asked whether his company’s forecasts were often wrong, company spokesman Bob Smith said ‘yes.'”
You don’t have to answer on their terms. Instead, say something like, “You know, it’s not so simple. The question isn’t whether forecasts are perfect, but whether ours is the most reliable in the marketplace. The answer, according to three independent studies, is that ours is the most accurate forecast available today.”
5. Third-party questions
” Your competitor recently released a similar product. I’ve heard some people in your company bash their product. Why do you think their product isn’t as good as yours?”
Little helps a news organization sell papers or attract viewers more than conflict.
Therefore, reporters will often ask you to comment on third parties, usually your competitors or opponents. Instead of taking the bait, answer the question by focusing on your own attributes.
For example, you might say, “Well, let me talk about our product. Ours is the only one in the marketplace that….”
Occasionally, you might want your quote to address your opponent’s flaws, but because that quote will inevitably be the one included in the story, make sure it’s consistent with your overall communications strategy.
6. The repeated question repeated
Reporters are notorious for asking the same question with slightly different words several times.
If you’re asked the same questions repeatedly, remember these two things:
First, stick to your messages. You should alter the specific words of each response, but not the themes of your answers.
Second, watch your tone. You should be as calm the sixth time the reporter asks you a question as you were the first, because the reporter will inevitably use your least flattering response.
Remember: A reporter’s job is to get you off message and off tone. If the reporter succeeds, this is what can happen.
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 story first appeared.