Bill Clinton

There Are No Throwaway Questions in Interviews

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

Wary reporters have taken to a tactic of asking an out-of-the-blue question at the end of what otherwise might be a routine interview. Whatever the purpose, such questions can send well-rehearsed spokespeople skidding off script, blurring their key message and making the wrong kind of “news.”

For that reason, media training these days includes “ambush interview” techniques and how to combat them.

Ambushing spokespeople is one way reporters are responding to rote, opaque or superficial statements. Those of us who coach spokespeople are responding by adding training to address what can be a very disorienting – and potentially disheartening – end to an interview.

It is important for spokespeople to remember there are no throwaway questions in an interview. Each question is a live-stakes interaction and should be treated with respect – and awareness.

Ambush questions tend to occur when entities or spokespeople are evasive, non-responsive or arrogant. It is a reporter’s way to get-even or level the playing field. Instead of regarding ambush questions as impertinent or a trap, spokespeople should view them as reporters trying to do their job.

The best way to avoid being ambushed is to say something when being interviewed. A well-prepared spokesperson should have a key message centered on action, not evasion. Reporters may still push for more detail or question the motivation for action, but that’s where solid preparation comes into play. A spokesperson should have practiced to parry with a reporter or a press conference full of reporters.

Former President Bill Clinton, no stranger to high-pressure interviews and ambush questions, stumbled over NBC correspondent Craig Melvin’s direct question about whether he personally apologized to Monica Lewinsky. While his interview with Melvin was nominally about the new book the former President has co-written with James Patterson, Clinton should not have been surprised about Lewinsky questions. In the shadow of the #MeToo movement, he absolutely should have anticipated a question about whether and how he apologized to Lewinsky.

In reality, Clinton ambushed himself by failing to prepare or not preparing well enough. It is a common mistake that can keep a crisis grinding on for another news cycle or rekindle an old ember into a fresh fire.

Whether it is the first question or the last question, each question can have a purpose – and maybe an underlying motivation. Spokespeople need to protect themselves and the organization they speak for by:

  • Knowing their subject
  • Mastering their key message
  • Anticipating questions
  • Preparing for obvious and not-so-obvious questions
  • Practicing

You are less likely to be surprised if you go into a media interview with something newsworthy to say – and say it in a clear, plainspoken way. The trickier you try to be, the more you invite in-kind behavior from reporters. If you try to brush them off, don’t be surprised if they try to ambush you.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

The Power of Perception Over Reality

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Clueless behavior can result in negative perceptions that are hard to shake and can overwhelm reality. Just ask Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about the power of perception.

Perception and reality are not automatically the same. And often perception packs more punch than reality, as the presumptive presidential candidates learned in recent days.

Former President Bill Clinton trots across an airport tarmac to chat with Attorney General Loretta Lynch who is on the threshold of deciding whether to indict Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump, already suspected of sympathies with white supremacists, sends a tweet bearing an image viewed by many as anti-Semitic.

Bill Clinton said he just exchanged pleasantries with Lynch. Trump denied being anti-Semitic, noting his son-in-law is Jewish. Both claims may be true, but neither is very believable. Perceptions overrule reality.

There is a shortage of trust in American politics today, so perceptions of wrongdoing or tone deaf behavior have fertile soil to sprout regardless of reality.

Perceptions don’t just pertain to incidental behavior. Hillary Clinton suffers from long-term suspicion that she has played fast and loose with the rules, including use of a private email account and server while secretary of state. FBI Director James Comey’s statement excusing Clinton from a criminal charge, but accusing her for carelessly handling classified material only added to long-held perceptions about her.

The power of perception to cloud a reputation or tarnish a good act cannot be denied. Yet, leaders plod along without thinking of how their actions might be perceived as opposed to how they are intended. Pleading ignorance or lamely saying you were misunderstood doesn’t cut you much slack. In fact, it may  deepen perceptions you are a lunkhead.

Wishing people who hold negative perceptions could know the “truth” is much like pinning your hopes on miracles or the tooth fairy.

The advent of social media has raised the stakes of thoughtless or clueless behavior. What might have eluded the traditional media rarely escapes the ever-peering eye of social media, as PBS discovered when it failed to note it was inserting footage from previous Fourth of July fireworks displays into its broadcast of this year’s Capitol celebration that occurred under ominous clouds. No big deal, but it still produced a news cycle full of stories about the “deception."

You don’t need a degree in psychology to know perceptions can crowd out reality in people’s minds. Perceptions have a habit of becoming their own reality. Chronic perceptions ossify into major barriers for making a fresh impression. Think of how hard it will be to convince people that Congress can be productive.

Building trust is hard enough. Don’t make it harder by leaving behind perceptions that undermine trustworthiness. You may never have a chance to climb out of the hole you dig for yourself.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

Look the Part, Act the Role

Whether press conference or presentation, people watch better than they listen. You need to look the part and act your role, paying as much attention to your body language as your words.

From the first time we open our eyes as babies, people learn by seeing. We take cues, form judgments and sense emotions by watching the movements of people.

Studies show body language conveys even more emotional information than facial expressions. Together, they speak volumes. 

If you fidget at a podium or garble your words, your audience will sense a lack of confidence and may discount what you say, regardless how persuasive or profound your point.

So, in addition to carefully crafting your words, the effective speaker and presenter meticulously practices his or her delivery — exactly like an actor.

In fact, you should think of a media interview, press conference or presentation in the same way as a stage play. You have a role to play and you need to look the part and act the role.

Here are a few tips:

Avoid weak postures

You tip off your audience that you are nervous or unsure of yourself by slumping, sticking your hands in your pockets or clasping your hands behind your back. These are seen as weak as opposed to power postures. Leaning forward at a podium or a table signals confidence and a desire to connect with your audience.

If you answer questions following a speech or press conference, don't cross your arms, which is a sign of defensiveness.

The key is to be mindful of your movements, especially your hands. They can underscore your meaning or confound and distract an audience if out of sync with your message.

Start Strong

Great speakers don't begin with apologies or lame jokes. They lean into their topic and form bonds with their audiences.

Start with a strong first line — an intriguing question, a startling admission or a thought-provoking statement.