Why spokespeople fall apart on the last question

All the poise and style won’t cover for a flawed exit from your media appearance. Here’s how to prepare executives and spokespeople so they don’t flub the finale.

Picture the scene.

You are pretty sure your spokesperson is coming towards the end of their media interview. You’re confident they have answered all the questions on the topic well and you feel they have got the message across successfully.

Suddenly, the journalist asks something completely unexpected, completely out of left field and your principal puts his foot straight into his mouth.

The final question has tripped up many a media spokesperson—and often undone all of his or her previous good work.

So what can you and your media team do about it?

Awareness is key

Often the last question will be introduced through a phrase like “while I’ve got you here,” which you have probably heard during radio or TV interviews.

It might take the form of a question about last-minute developments on your subject. It could be about wider issues in your sector or industry, or perhaps about something a rival organization has done.

The scope could be much wider than that. In the current political climate, you will often find spokespeople asked to give their views about the impact of Brexit or Donald Trump through this final question.

It is essential for spokespeople to be aware that a tricky question could still be coming and that they don’t start to relax or rest on their laurels because they feel the interview has gone well.

[RELATED: Get the skills you need to become a trusted advisor to leaders.]

Preparation is also absolutely crucial. Spokespeople need to spend time anticipating the wider issues that could be brought into an interview and in particular into a difficult final question.

You can be sure that the journalist has been doing their research and his means spokespeople need to ensure they know about the big issues in their industry and what the media has recently been interested in.

They also need to be aware of what the organization’s official stance is on wider issues like Brexit and be confident to use that messaging in an interview.

How to manage a final question

Say too little, or sound irritated by the sudden change of questioning, and you could appear defensive. This would be likely to cause the journalist to pursue that line of questioning and ramp up the pressure.

Say too much, and the focus of the interview could be about the response to the final question rather than the subject you wanted to talk about. This is particularly true when that final question invited you to speculate, for example on potential job losses as result of leaving the EU.

The best replies to these questions are the ones where a spokesperson provides a brief response, which doesn’t include anything controversial, and then goes on to steer the conversation, using media training techniques, back to the subject you want to talk about.

Beware throwaway questions

The last question doesn’t just have to be a “while you are here” question. Some of the most devastating interview mistakes have come from responses to what are seemingly throwaway questions.

When something has gone badly wrong, the final question to a CEO might be ‘do you really think you are worth your salary’ or ‘are you going to resign’.It was a question Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg prepared for extensively when he appeared in front of US Senators as his briefing notes showed.

The question was never asked, but it was a much better approach to prepare properly than assume a sneaky question with the intent to rattle Zuckerberg wouldn’t come up.

How would you advise someone to prepare for the final question of an interview?

Adam Fisher is the content editor for Media First, a media and communications training firm with over 30 years of experience. A version of this article originally appeared on the Media First blog.

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