Rick Santorum, who is seeking the Republican nomination for President, was in a dust up several days ago with a reporter for the New York Times. It happened after Mr. Santorum said in a campaign speech that his primary opponent for the nomination, Mitt Romney, “is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFfQQHWsP8I
While working the crowd after the speech, Mr. Santorum was asked by a reporter “You said Mitt Romney was the worst Republican in the country. Is that true?”
The candidate took issue with what he called a “distortion” of his words. During a spirited ninety second response, Mr. Santorum accused the reporter of willfully misrepresenting his words. Oh, and during the response, he used a well-known profanity to describe what the reporter had done, in his words.
I will leave it to Mr. Santorum’s supporters to defend his actions, and to his opponents to cry foul over his response. However, there is something to be learned by anyone who finds themself communicating through the media, especially when responding in an emotional way to a question.
There is nothing inherently wrong with responding emotionally to a question or on an issue you feel passionately about. However, it should always be “controlled” emotion. In fact, emotion can be an effective way to emphasize an especially important point.
My sense is that Mr. Santorum knew when he began his response to the reporter’s question that everything he said would be videotaped for all the world to see. He may well have taken the opportunity to respond as he did to play to his supporters and position himself and his campaign as the victim of supposed media distortions. If that was Mr. Santorum’s intent, he did it well…for the first 44 seconds. Had he merely ended his response and moved on, he would have left viewers with “Quit distorting my words!” Not a bad wrap to the point he was trying to make about the question in the first place.
However, he did not end his response there. Instead, he went on for nearly a minute more, dropping the profanity and, in essence, verbally assaulting the reporter. Basically, he piled on and made assertions about the reporter specifically and the media generally.
The result? Mr. Santorum’s use of a profanity and his enraged demeanor – not his primary point about his opponent – became a YouTube sensation. The reporter even appeared on national news programs to give his account of what happened and why Mr. Santorum was out of line.
In all fairness to Mr. Santorum, he is not the only candidate to have ever made a media misstep on the campaign trail. Too, people on all sides of the political spectrum have at one time or another accused the media of distorting their comments.
For those who find themselves being interviewed by the media, the lesson to be taken from this incident is that once you have said your piece, stop. When you continue past that point, your message can often get lost in your method. It is a sound lesson to be applied, especially in the midst of a crisis, a contentious media interview, or when faced with a stinging question or what you you believe to be a fallacious premise.
Being interviewed the media can be challenging, but it also provides a platform and opportunity to communicate your message to the public. There are Four Interview Traps to Avoid, however, especially in an evolving “incident” or “crisis.
Saying “No Comment” — No surprise here. Just about every media training program warns against uttering the words “No comment.” But it is a source of constant amazement how many people say these very words when hit with a media question they don’t want to, or cannot, respond to. “No Comment” translates into “Gulity as Charged” by readers, listeners and viewers. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you have to tell everyone everything just because a reporter asks a question. Just don’t say “No comment.” Instead, explain why you cannot address the question specifically and provide something. For example, if you cannot comment on an issue in specific, speak to it generally.
“I can’t speak to the specifics, but here’s what I can tell you…”
This may not satisfy a reporter completely, but it acknowledges the legitimate interest of the reporter and public, and conveys a spirit of cooperation. They don’t get everything they sought, but they get something. And if you can, tell them why you can’t comment specifically. They may not like it, but they may at least appreciate your reasoning.
Speculation — Speculation should be avoided at all cost. Reporters may ask you to speculate on a situation, especially in a breaking news event when information may be scarce and slow in coming. Further, if you are conducting a news conference, state up front that you will not speculate and that your objective is to provide as much hard, confirmed information as you can. That may forestall requests to speculate. At the least, it gets you on record as focused on facts as you know them.
Responding to Hypotheticals — A close cousin of speculation, responding to a hypothetical rarely results in a good end. It can drag you into a discussion of something that does not even exist in reality and which has dubious relevance to the situation at hand. Simply decline to respond to hypotheticals and move on to the next question.
Accepting a False Premise — The last interview trap to avoid is a little harder to recognize: accepting (much less responding to) a premise you don’t accept or agree with. Often a question will be wrapped into a premise stated by the questioner. Yet many people blindly launch into a response that serves no positive purpose. What to do when faced with this situation? Simply state “I don’t agree with the premise of your question. The real issue is…” Doing otherwise can lead to a situation where you are compelled to defend yourself against a premise that is spurious to begin with.
So there you have them: Four Interview Traps to Avoid. Being aware of them, and anticipating how you will segue out of and away from them will help you come across as confident but not confrontational, and cooperative without being excessively conciliatory.
Even though the next presidential election is not until November 2012, November 2011 has been an interesting month of the continuing presidential campaign. This is not so much for the successes of the candidates, but for some notable missteps, or as one candidate aptly put it, some “oops” moments.
Texas Governor Rick Perry couldn’t recall the third of three agency’s he would eliminate as President. Herman Cain drew an obvious blank when asked how his position on Libya conformed or contrasted with that of the President. In fairness to Mssrs. Perry and Cain, no one is immune from drawing blanks from time-to-time, especially in high-stakes situations like presidential debates. Fairly or not, every word is analyzed as much for how
they can be used against candidates as for them. That is just the nature of politics in America in 2011.
The two situations offer learning opportunities for anyone being interviewed by the media, or responding to questions following a presentation. No one is immune from an occasional lapse of memory or failure to recall certain points, especially in pressure situations. So, how does one handle those situations when they present themselves? There are a few steps
that can help minimize their occurrence, and mitigate their impact when they do occur.
Avoid Specific Numbers – By this I mean avoiding citing a specific number of items, steps,
reasons, etc. For example, if you respond to a question asking why your company
is taking an action, do not begin the response with “There are four reasons. The first is ….” You go on to cite the second and third reasons, but like Governor Perry, you cannot recall the final item. Having cited “four reasons” the audience knows you are one short. Instead, respond with “There are several reasons. The first is…” This way, even if you
had four in mind and draw a blank on one, no one knows you are short one…even
Transist To What You Do Know – In situations where you are unable to respond with specifics that a question may call for, respond with what you do know. For example, “I don’t have the specific detail that you’re asking for, but here is what I can tell you…” While the ideal may to be to cite specifics, the suggested response will mitigate the fact you do not have
certain details and help you avoid being caught flat-footed.
Prepare for Issues, Not Just Questions – No one is expected to have a detailed response to eachand every question. Further, it is an exercise in futility to try and
anticipate all conceivable questions. However, you can reasonably anticipate
what issues will come up in an interview or in the Q&A following a
presentation. Thus, when asked about a specific point or detail that you do not
know, or cannot recall, speak to your position or perspective on the issue more
broadly. For example, “At the moment I don’t have the specific details you’ve asked for. However, the key point to keep in mind is…” and then go on to cite your position or perspective on the issue in general, if not in specific.
Being prepared with a transitional statement that takes you into a broader discussion
of the issue allows you to demonstrate greater command.
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