Learn to Love Negative Accusations in Interviews

Posted by Dan Keeney

How a word association game can save you from the quicksand of getting defensive


Reporters go negative to elicit interesting content that attracts an audience and gets them to pay attention.

I enjoyed reading the article, “One of the Biggest Mistakes You Can Make in a Media Interview,” by Tim O’Brien, APR. Tim was a close associate when we both worked at Ketchum Public Relations, and we continue to work together when we have the opportunity. Tim’s piece inspired the thinking below, which we often discuss at DPK Public Relations during Media Training Workshops.

News is a business. Media companies sell time to advertisers who want to influence the audience that is being reached. When I was a broadcast journalist, we considered it our challenge to produce an interesting news program that compelled people to tune in and stay tuned. That remains the challenge of journalists whether they are writing for print, broadcast or social media. Grab them and hold them.

While we certainly were aware of ratings, we were only vaguely thinking about the business implications – how our news contributed to advertising sales. In fact, we defended against any advertising influence of our news content. But news decisions increasingly are driven by business interests. You can see it in the way news is presented, the headline choices and what news is covered. Understanding how the business of news contributes to news decisions can help spokespersons anticipate certain strategies employed by journalists so you can plan for them and turn them to your advantage.

For instance, it is important to understand that the foundation of news is conflict. Without conflict, there is usually no story. Even an up-by-the-bootstraps feature story has an implicit conflict of a person’s struggle against the odds. Typical conflicts are right vs. wrong, wastefulness vs. efficiency, danger vs. safety, the big guy vs. the little guy, the powerful vs. the powerless, old and outdated vs. new and innovative.

If you want to avoid conflict, it’s possible that attracting media attention is not an appropriate tactic for your organization. Conflict goes hand in hand with news and if you are pitching a story and haven’t figured out the conflict, you will have a difficult time getting an editor to bite.

To draw out the conflict in a story, journalists are trained and rewarded for using highly inflammatory language in their questions. A few examples of this approach might include words such as “disaster,” “horrible,” “disgraceful,” “embarrassing,” and “guilty.” It’s not something journalists a necessarily conscious of – it’s just a way of provoking interesting responses from the spokesperson.

In fact, in many instances an untrained spokesperson will have a knee jerk reaction to these gut shots. They’ll respond, “We’re not guilty of anything,” or “I wouldn’t say it is disgraceful….”

When that happens, the reporter can immediately rack that video for use on the air. The journalist has succeeded in putting their highly inflammatory word in the spokesperson’s mouth. We call it, “seeding the response” because the journalist planted the seed.

Here’s what the untrained spokesperson is not thinking: the reporter’s question is highly unlikely to be used. The spokesperson’s response is certain to be used. The audience won’t hear the question — they’ll only hear the word ‘guilty’ or ‘disgraceful’ or embarrassed coming out of the spokesperson’s mouth and that’s when they’ll start paying attention. That’s how journalists win — they get great content that attracts attention.

Spokespersons can diffuse this by always keeping their language positive. Often, a negatively framed question can be turned on its head with a response that uses the exact opposite language. If the journalist accuses the spokesperson of being wasteful, the spokesperson should not dwell on that negative idea, but instead think “efficiency.” If the journalist says, “dangerous,” the spokesperson should jump to safety initiatives underway.

When prepping for an interview, you can actually turn it into a bit of a word association game. On one side of a piece of paper record all the potential negative words that might come your way. On the other side of the page, come up with an opposite positive word. Through role play, you can practice deftly getting from the accusatory question to your positive response and then delivering your message.

Think 1) Question, 2) Brief response and 3) Message.

Spokespersons can’t allow themselves to get dragged into the quicksand of defending against the negative question. Being defensive leaves a negative impression. Instead, briefly respond in 10 seconds or less using positive language and then use that brief response as a platform to deliver the message you want to be the focus of the discussion and the focus of the story.

To succeed, it takes preparation and practice.

Schedule a Media Training Workshop or Public Speaking Training Workshop with DPK Public Relations today! Visit www.dpkpr.com, call 800.596.8708 or email dan@dpkpr.com. We are currently scheduling training dates through the first quarter of 2016.

Photo by Steven Kelley

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015 at 5:12 pm and is filed under Public Relations Advice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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