You agree to an interview, but when the reporter shows up, he suddenly switches to a surprise and controversial topic. You have been ambushed.
You also can be ambushed when a reporter and a cameraman jump you en route to a meeting, asking uncomfortable questions in an equally uncomfortable setting.
The ambush interview is a newsgathering technique reporters employ to get a scoop. They may have new, explosive information or a hunch they will encounter reticence in a news source.
Like any ambush, the ambush interview can be painful. Like any communication crisis, the ambush interview can be a moment of truth where you can shine.
The nature of ambushes makes them hard to anticipate. But corporate leaders, spokespeople, political figures and public agency directors would be wise to prepare. Here are a few tips:
- Avoid appearing defensive. Don't stomp off from the interview. An iPhone picture of your back can look like a guilty verdict. Take command, face your interviewer and say you aren't prepared to talk about the subject. Turn the tables and invite them to come back later when you are ready.
- Be aware of ambush points. You may not anticipate when an ambush might occur, but you can anticipate the kind of material that might lead to an ambush. Identify those issues and have a prepared answer in your pocket if you are ambushed. Even a short answer is better than no answer or fumbling for an answer. If you can't provide an answer, clearly state why.
- Remain calm. Your demeanor is probably the strongest message you can deliver. If you stay calm, you tell the reporter, "I can handle your pressure." Keeping calm provides space for you to negotiate – rescheduling an interview, moving the interview to a more appropriate setting or offering some context on the issue.
- Don't get sucker-punched. If you successfully defend yourself in hand-to-hand combat with the reporter, don't let him sucker punch you with "Well then, let's talk off the record." This is just another, close-range ambush. A simple response: "Let's talk when I'm prepared" or "Let's talk when the facts are in" is a graceful exit from the reporter's trap.
Maintaining good media relations habits is one way to avert ambush interviews. Return calls from reporters so they don't feel the need to ambush you. Establish rapport with the reporters that routinely cover your company, nonprofit or agency, so you have a reservoir of trust. Be straight with reporters. Be willing to talk about the good and the bad, so you build credibility.
The digital age has made virtually anyone a "reporter." While the ambush interview is a challenge, the ambush by someone with a smartphone who records what you thought was a private moment poses a much greater challenge.
If you are someone with any degree of public profile, the best advice is to believe you are in a perpetual ambush zone. Don't let down your guard. Be prudent and thoughtful in what you say and do. Don't be surprised by an ambush.