What to do in a media interview when reporters go long

Bernie Sanders recently demonstrated one tactic, but it wasn’t the Democratic presidential candidate’s best option. Here are four to consider.

A reporter from NBC’s Phoenix affiliate recently interviewed Sen. Bernie Sanders regarding his chances in the Arizona Democratic presidential primary.

After answering one of the reporter’s several questions, Sanders stood, removed his microphone and made clear the interview was over. The resulting video was posted online with the headline, “Bernie Sanders Walks Out of Interview.”

That seems like a reasonable headline, but a few facts prove it’s not entirely accurate. It also prompts the question: What could Sanders have done better?

The video shows Sanders ending the interview, then telling the reporter that he had exceeded the four-minute interview window to which they had agreed. Sanders did the opposite of walking out—he sat back down, seemingly to prepare to speak to another reporter. What’s true is that Sanders ended the interview rather abruptly, although he offered a perfunctory “thank you” twice.

Here’s the key exchange at the end, as reported by BuzzFeed:

“I told you you had four minutes. You had more than four minutes,” Sanders told Resnik after the interview ended. “I didn’t walk away, you persisted.”

“I’m a reporter,” Resnik replied. “That’s what we do.”

“Don’t say I walked away,” Sanders chided Resnik. “You got four minutes…that was the time that was allotted.”

It’s not unusual for reporters to breach such time agreements—they often go until someone stops them—and all Sanders did was enforce the terms to which they agreed, albeit in his typically gruff manner.

Leaving aside the ethically questionable headline about Sanders “walking out,” there’s a broader question: What can spokespersons do when the time window to which they agreed expires?

Here are four ideas:

1. End the interview.

This is what Sanders did, but abrupt endings can lead to negative headlines and a compelling video that gets extensive television airplay and goes viral online. The audience isn’t always clear who’s in the right, so the spokesperson can suffer unfavorable press, even if he’s right on the facts.

2. Continue the interview.

Often, the better of two imperfect options is to let the interview go a bit longer. That might not have been possible in this case, as I suspect Sanders was operating on a tight schedule, but it’s clear he wasn’t in any “trouble” in this interview. He was answering challenging but predictable questions with relative ease—and he had a reasonable chance of continuing without making a harmful gaffe.

The downside of this approach is the more you say, the more likely you will eventually stray.

3. Have the PR pro end the interview.

With this approach, the PR pro would jump in at the four-minute mark and end the interview. The downside is that it can look like he’s saving the spokesperson, which doesn’t always play well and can attract its own negative headlines.

4. Use option three—with a twist.

The final (and my favorite) approach is to have the PR pro jump in at the four-minute mark, but have the spokesperson say, “That’s OK. Let him ask one more question.” This way the interview comes to a close, but the spokesperson looks open and generous.

In the clip below, a PR pro attempted to inappropriately cut off an interview. (I’m suggesting something much more graceful than this in option No. 3.) Watch how well former Secretary of State Colin Powell handled the situation in this 2004 “Meet the Press” clip:

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bibleand “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

Topics: PR


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