9 journalistic interview tactics to identify and resist

Speaking to a reporter can be like walking a tightrope. You want to be truthful, of course, but off-the-cuff remarks can land you in trouble. Follow this guidance to maintain your equilibrium.


You have to stay on your toes.

Some reporters use interview techniques that can catch corporate communicators off guard, resulting in replies they later regret.

Most journalists don’t use underhanded tricks, but PR pros and corporate executives still should look out for these nine curveballs:

1. Off the record questions. Some reporters request information in confidence but publish it anyway. Sometimes they never intend to keep the comments private. Sometimes remarks are reported by mistake if the interviewer, interviewee or both misunderstand when the off-the-record session ends. Respond with a simple, “I won’t go off the record.” Consider everything, even post-interview banter, as being on the record.

2. “Just between you and me …” This is a variation of the “off the record” request. Reporters try to act as your confidant. Respond by asking for clarification as to whether they’re asking for information off the record. Then decide on your course of action.

3. “One last thing …” The reporter asks a pivotal question as she heads to the door after you thought the interview was over. The television detective Columbo used this trick in almost every episode. He concludes the interview, bids farewell and then, as he’s walking away, says: “Oh, just one last thing…” Remember, even if the TV crew has packed up the lights and the camera, the interview is never over until the inquisitor is out the door.

4. “Who’s going to tell me about this if you don’t?” Don’t feel obligated to answer. Decline to comment if necessary, but explain why you can’t comment rather responding with a simple “no comment.” Joan Stewart, PR and publicity expert, says, “If you decide that you don’t want to talk about a sensitive subject that’s confidential, proprietary or off-limits, that’s the reporter’s problem, not yours.”

5. “Don’t you think it’s terrible that …” This is a way for a reporter with an agenda to steer you in the direction he or she wants you to discuss. Respond by saying, “That’s not how I feel,” or, “Your assumption is incorrect.” If appropriate, state you how really feel, Stewart writes in Entrepreneur.

6. Deadline pressure. Reporters use the pressure of a last-minute call before deadline to prompt you to reveal something you normally would not. Don’t let the reporter transfer his own stress to you. Be helpful, and be calm, advises Jessica Killenberg Muzik, vice president for account services at Bianchi Public Relations.

7. Reference check. An unscrupulous reporter poses as a personnel manager or a credit agent and calls former employers, colleagues and customers, disguising the call as a background check. Make sure you know exactly whom you are talking to and what organization they represent. If you are leery, ask for a call-back number and check it out.

8. Odd-hour calling. Reporters call in the early morning, during lunch or after hours to catch you off guard. The obvious solution is to always be on guard when talking with media representatives. Don’t hesitate to say you need a few moments to collect your thoughts or formulate an answer. Say you’ll call back in 10 minutes, and follow through.

9. Pregnant pauses. Reporters simply wait after getting a response to a question. Some people feel compelled to fill the uncomfortable silence, even when they have nothing more to say. Inexperienced spokespeople fill the silence with unprepared material, rather than letting the key message stand on its own. Do not go off message. Ask the journalist whether she has additional questions, and remain in control, advises Strategy Corp.

Corporate PR staff and executives can protect themselves by knowing the interview techniques and leading questions some reporters might employ. Learning common interview tricks and how to handle them can prevent corporate representatives from making comments or divulging information they later regret.

A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.

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