Editor's note: This was the most-popular article on Ragan.com in 2013. We are rerunning it as part of a look back at the year's top stories.
If everybody performed in interviews like 14-year-old Rachel Parent, I would be out of a job.
The young Canadian activist founded an organization called “The Kids Right To Know,” which campaigns for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). She has organized and spoken at rallies against GMOs and just happens to be one amazing spokesperson.
Here’s the proof: Parent challenged investor and TV host Kevin O’Leary to a debate after he called GMO protesters “just stupid” and suggested on his show that they “stop eating” as a way to “get rid of them.”
O’Leary accepted, and last week Parent was a guest on the show he co-hosts, “The Lang & O’Leary Exchange,” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
O’Leary made it clear early in the interview he had no intention of taking it easy on Parent because of her age. That’s not unfair given Parent’s activism and visibility in her movement. Still, there’s a fine line between respectfully challenging and bullying. O’Leary managed to end the interview looking like a condescending bully due to Parent’s stellar performance.
One of the first questions he asked her, “You know what a lobbyist is, right?” set the tone for the 13 minutes that would follow.
So, how did this 14-year-old succeed? She did some very big things right.
1. She didn’t let O’Leary change the debate.
More than once in the interview, O’Leary pushed to expose Parent as ignorant and anti-science. The savvy 14-year-old would have none of it. She was laser-focused on her issue of labeling GMO food and brought her answers back to that repeatedly.
2. She refused to engage in hypotheticals.
O’Leary used some hypothetical situations, including one in which nutrient-enriched rice, called “golden rice,” was being fed to starving communities around the world. When he asked what she would say to malnourished children about GMOs, Parent was ready. Rather than play into O’Leary’s hypothetical example, she used facts about the rice and explained why it wasn’t effective.
3. She ignored his insults.
O’Leary more than once alluded to Parent’s youth and even accused her of being disingenuous. A particularly low point for O’Leary was when he accused Parent of becoming a “shill” for groups that want to use her, saying, “You’re young, you’re articulate, you’re getting lots of media, and I’m happy for you on that. But I’m trying to figure out whether you really deep down believe this.” Even with that, Parent never sank to O’Leary’s level in the debate.
4. She knew what she was walking into.
Parent was obviously familiar with O’Leary, but she did more than just come prepared for a spirited debate. She did her homework. At one point, O’Leary brought up a documentary his daughter had produced about the GMO debate. Parent had already seen it and offered to clarify some of the points made in the film.
5. She brought on the challenge.
Parent smartly realized that her credibility would soar if she could effectively debate the hostile O’Leary. She was right.
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Parent accomplished in that interview what most adult spokespeople dream of. She took on a tough challenger, managed to stay on message, and walked off the set knowing she likely brought some skeptical viewers to her cause. Plus, she scored a viral video in the process. Brava!
Christina Mozaffari is the vice president of Phillips Media Relations. Follow her on Twitter @PMRChristina. This story first appeared on the. Mr. Media Training blog.