It’s the stuff of nightmares for PR pros.
The interview is going along fine when—wham!—the interviewer asks about an issue you’d hoped to avoid. There’s no turning back without it looking as if you are evading the question.
The solution to this common catastrophe is called bridging.
You think you are at an impasse, but all you need is a “bridge,” a transition that takes you from the reporter’s question to an answer that works for you. When used successfully, it is an essential part of a spokesperson’s rhetorical toolbox.
Here are some examples of scenarios where this tool can help you out of a tight corner:
1. The reporter is serving as a tour guide.
Interviewees are often too eager to please the journalist and create a favorable impression. They simply follow along, stopping at the destination points the journalist considers important. That works out fine if those stops are ones your spokesperson also hoped to visit. However, important points can fail to make the itinerary.
Solution: Stay on message.
Effective media guests don’t wait for the reporter. They use every question to share their most important points with the audience. Every answer is an opportunity to deliver those crucial messages. They use media interview bridging to take the audience from the reporter’s question to their message nearly every time.
Imagine you are being interviewed about a community art program that you are launching. You have three key points you want to make – it is affordable, accessible and open to all ages.
Reporter: “I hoped you could talk about how you got started in art.”
Your answer: “I began drawing when I was 3 and painting when I was 6. That’s all thanks to classes that were offered in the town where I grew up.”
Your bridge: “That’s one of the reasons I launched this program.”
You arrive at the other side: “I wanted to provide the same kind of affordable and accessible opportunities I enjoyed as a child. Not everyone will become an artist. However, everyone should have the opportunity to discover art.”
The artist could have digressed into early influences, her hometown or the type of work she does. Instead, she stayed on message.
2. The reporter switches gears and asks an off-topic question.
Here’s the problem: Spokespeople must address a direct question, but irrelevant subjects take time away from points they want to deliver. Depending on the topic or tone, it also can cause an interview to spin out of control. That disorientation does a number on a spokesperson’s ability to convey information that informs, persuades and motivates the audience they are trying to reach.
Solution: Get back on track.
Media guests can expect some “off-road” adventures from time to time, as reporters veer from the beaten path. Savvy guests won’t stay there, however. Instead, through media interview bridging, they guide the reporter back to the main road.
Let’s say you represent an environmental nonprofit working to protect the alligators in Florida. There is local concern that a proposal for a conservation area is prioritizing the needs of the reptiles over the concerns of nearby residents.
Reporter: “Isn’t there inevitably going to be conflict whenever environmentalists propose a new conservation area that impacts local residents?”
Your answer: “There doesn’t have to be.”
Your bridge: “What I hope nearby residents keep in mind is that …
You arrive at the other side: … protecting the American crocodile helps people in the area earn a better living, as the increase in ecotourism will significantly boost local business.”
The spokesperson could have been side-tracked with a philosophical debate about whether conservation areas always rile residents. Instead, he got back on track.
3. The reporter asks the guest to speculate.
The very word “speculate” should give any spokesperson pause. It’s best not to engage in any theory or conjecture not based on firm evidence. Some questions might be innocuous, such as a request to draw on your expertise to forecast a likely outcome. Others can cause damage, particularly if a spokesperson guesses wrong or offers a message that undercuts the image of the organization he or she represents.
Solution: Avoid the slip.
The speculative question is a slippery slope for a spokesperson. Sure, public representatives can certainly talk about subjects that concern the organizations they work for. However, they want to steer clear of becoming the story, which can happen when a response turns out to be erroneous or is contrary to one of their key messages. Bridging offers safe passage.
Let’s say you are a CEO of a technology company that is launching a new version of a popular product. The reporter wants you to speculate on the public’s likely response. You, however, are hesitant to predict the future.
Reporter: “Do you think this new version will become the bestseller in its category?”
Your answer: “There’s no doubt that people are very excited about this product.”
Your bridge: “We’ve seen it with our beta testers, who have responded exuberantly to the improvements that were made to the popular functions of the previous version.”
You arrive at the other side: “We are optimistic that consumers will embrace this latest version, particularly when they see the value this product offers, and want to upgrade to the latest version the first chance they get.”
The CEO couldn’t predict the future. However, it is a safe bet that she made future media interviews easier by avoiding speculative answers that might have come back to haunt her.
4. The reporter embeds a false premise into a question.
Bias and provocation aren’t always behind this interview tactic. Sometimes, a reporter genuinely believes what they say is true, seeing it as conventional wisdom rather than an incorrect proposition. A spokesperson must first right the error before moving on to an answer.
Solution: Stay the course.
In their attempts to correct the inaccuracy, media guests might sound defensive. However, all it takes is some deft transition to steer the conversation back on course. Here is an example where a reporter questions a school administrator about test scores and student achievement:
Reporter: “The low scores show test preparation failed to address the areas students needed to master. How are your educators going to adjust their approach for next year’s test?”
Your answer: “I’m not sure the main issue was the test prep itself.”
Your bridge: “Because, what our research shows …
You arrive at the other side: … is that the format of the test was radically different from previous versions. Other school districts also are reporting lower test scores that seem to be stemming from those changes, rather than preparation. We’ve already adjusted our approach by looking at different study options for next year.”
Whether it is a subtle shift, or you find yourself doing some textual heavy lifting, media interview bridging allows you to stay on track.
5. The reporter asks a confrontational question.
When spokespersons become defensive and linger in that defensive or adversarial attitude, they get into trouble. Not only does it affect the impression they make on the audience, but they miss a genuine chance to offer an answer and deliver a message.
Solution: Stay one step ahead with ample preparation.
Reporters want to get to the bottom of the story. In more controversial situations, they might confront a source or interviewee with a confrontational question. A potential liability becomes an asset when the response is delivered with grace and authenticity.
In this example, a line item in the $296 million city budget has piqued the interest of a local newspaper reporter. During an interview, she challenges the town administrator about the cost.
Reporter: “Why are you asking taxpayers to foot a $5,000 expense for ‘party supplies?’ Shouldn’t that money be spent on crucial programs and services?”
Your answer: “This is a wonderful use of city funds.”
Your bridge: “These funds support several celebrations and award ceremonies for community at-risk youth programs.”
You arrive on the other side: “These events are part of our larger efforts to honor and reward volunteers who work with these young people, as well as the young people themselves. Put in the context of the $296 million budget, it’s an investment whose return is hard to beat.”
The more confrontational the question, the more difficult the response. However, nearly every question is answerable. With enough preparation, you can diffuse the drama and deliver a meaningful message.
A relevant PR tactic
Learning how to transition from tough questions to meaningful answers is a learned skill. For the critics who see media interview bridging as dodge, it isn’t. In every scenario, the interviewer received a direct response and acknowledgment of the question.
These techniques are not meant to provide tools to evade tough questions. Media interview bridging is a tool that you can use to better transition out of sticky situations and deliver meaningful messages to audiences that matter the most to you.
Bridging is not the answer for every dilemma. However, keep it in your proverbial back pocket for when you need it.
Here’s a real-life example of successful bridging. Several years ago, Rachel Parent, then 14, appeared on a news program in her home country of Canada. She spoke about the organization she founded, “The Kids Right To Know.” The group campaigns for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms.
How have you used bridging techniques to sway skeptical audiences, PR Daily readers?
Christina Hennessy is the chief content officer for Throughline Group, which offers public speaking and media training open-enrollment classes and custom workshops. This post originally appeared on the Throughline Blog.