Air Canada chief highlights what not to do in a media interview

Getting defensive when a reporter hits you with tough questions can cause you to lose control of the narrative and quickly steer a story into negative territory.

"Departure Path" by BriYYZ via / CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s not uncommon for some executives to lash out during a media interview.

Leaders who do so are used to being in control and get angry when they’re challenged. Unfortunately for Air Canada’s chief executive, Calin Rovinescu, it’s also not uncommon for reporters to punish executives for unappealing tones.

On Tuesday, Canada’s The Globe and Mail published an interview in which reporter Trevor Cole asked a series of seemingly fair questions about the airline. Rovinescu’s tone shifted when the executive didn’t like the turn of questioning, prompting him to answer sarcastically and defensively through the remainder of the interview.


The full article is behind a pay wall, but I’ve excerpted a few key exchanges below:


You feel good about how Air Canada deals with [overbooking]. Can we talk about that case last April when the 10-year-old boy was bumped?

No. I’m not getting into specific customer dynamics with you, Trevor. And that’s not what I expected this interview to be about, and I’m happy to end it here if that’s—I’m not getting into discussions with respect to specific customer experiences.

By threatening to end the interview, Rovinescu suddenly shifted the headline away from his airline and toward his own refusal to engage meaningfully on a topic consumers are concerned about: how they’re treated by air carriers. Rovinescu was soon punished for that decision.

Cole recognized that his interview with the chief executive might come to an abrupt end if he stayed on that topic, so Cole shifted his line of questions:


Let’s talk about the disruptions coming from things like climate change. What is Air Canada doing to deal with this new reality?

Short of being able to control the weather, I don’t think there’s a lot we can do. I think that you will see some extreme weather situations which will result in disruptions.

You’re saying there’s nothing you can do to plan around that?

No, that’s not what I’m saying. There is a tremendous amount of planning that goes on through a complex operating system. But being able to control the weather is not within our business plan.

Rovinescu gave two sarcastic answers here—and Cole’s follow-up question was spot on. In Rovinescu’s first answer, he did appear to say there wasn’t much Air Canada could do. When pressed in a follow-up question, he gave an opposite answer.

Then Cole brought up a near-disaster that is currently being investigated: In July, an Air Canada plane carrying 140 passengers almost landed on a busy taxiway at San Francisco International Airportwhere four other full planes were lined up.


Can you talk to me about pilot error? Just in terms of—

Trevor, I’m not sure I’m loving the direction of your interview here. I thought we were talking about a more generic dynamic around what the airline has achieved.

This experienced chief really thought the interview would solely be a puff piece about “what the airline has achieved” without any focus on Air Canada’s imperfections?

To refuse to answer a question about public safety rather than reiterating his commitment to work internally and with investigators to learn what happened and how to prevent it from reoccurring was a bad decision.

Reporters ultimately have control over the final edit, and Cole—appropriately, in my view—made the CEO pay for his responses. Here’s the end of the article’s introductory paragraph:

All that success, however, has come at a time when air travel feels increasingly stressful. Growing delays and disruptions have left many passengers, including some Air Canada customers, feeling overcharged and underserved. But in the glow of his financial triumphs, Air Canada’s CEO would rather not dwell on the negatives. Or even hear about them, apparently.


Perhaps Cole told Air Canada’s PR staff that this would be a positive profile and then surprised Rovinescu with tougher questions.

If so, who cares? An executive’s job is to speak through the reporter to his or her customers and other stakeholders, not react to a reporter’s questions—particularly those that are fair. Rovinescu’s staff could have protested with the reporter after the interview, if they decided to do so.

Perhaps the reporter had a nasty, biting tone. Again, who cares? Readers would never hear it in a print piece—and in writing, Cole’s questions seemed fair.

If Rovinescu had given even bland responses to the reporter’s tough questions, he could have kept more of a focus on his airline than his tone. Instead, he reacted to Cole’s questions instead of answering them—and by doing so, unnecessarily increased the negative tone of the article.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations. 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.”

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