In the hot seat: How to deal with a tough media interview

By Mark G. Auerbach

You’ve finally snagged that media interview you’ve been hoping for. You arrive at the TV studio or radio station, or they come to you. You’re looking fabulous, and you’re feeling confident. Then, from out of nowhere, they toss that tough question that makes you wish you were anywhere else. Or, that handsome TV news reporter you’ve been swooning over pulls a Mike Wallace, and your back’s against the wall. You have but two options: to keep cool and on point, or to get swallowed up.

An interview should “appear” to be a conversation and a sharing of ideas, but a smart reporter will seek out the truth and get the right sound bite or answer out of you to make the interview informative, and perhaps entertaining. A good reporter is often well prepared to ask the right questions. Sometimes, that reporter is ill informed, on deadline, and stressed from a long line of projects due that day, and things don’t work out as planned.

So, do your homework before an interview, and the tough questions are easy to navigate.

–Be prepared. Know your subject, your company’s core mission, and have the relevant facts at hand before the interview. You can share some bullet points with a reporter in advance. Write the numbers down on a note card, so you can respond accurately.

–If you can, know the reporter’s style. Listen to one or two radio pieces or watch some TV clips. You’ll get an idea of how the reporter asks questions.

–Always be honest. Once a reporter thinks you’re being evasive or lying, you’ll be called on it. If you don’t know the answer, refer the reporter to someone who does. If you can’t answer, for example because of a legality, respond accordingly, but respond.

I used to handle public relations for a shopping center that owned a lot of property adjacent to and surrounding its buildings. A shooting happened in a parked car at the perimeter of the center’s property, and the TV stations came running when they heard the police dispatcher send people to the “ABC Center.” I had to refer the media to the police officer investigating the crime, and all I could say to the media was that the incident did not happen inside the shopping center, and that no shoppers inside the building were involved.

Another time, I was working for a large arts organization, where a major artistic figure “resigned” after rumors had swirled about some improprieties. All I could say was “we’re not permitted by law to discuss personnel matters.”

–Never mention the competition, unless you’re discussing an issue of importance to your industry. Example, you’re representing your airline, and you’re being interviewed about an airport terminal addition. It is okay to say something like “ABC Airlines and our fellow companies serving this airport want customers to have a good travel experience.” Don’t refer to your company as “we,” but mention the name. You want to highlight your brand. For example, don’t say, “We’re delighted to participate.” Say “We at ABC Company are delighted to participate.”

–Change the topic–carefully. A reporter might ask “Why aren’t your food products organic?” You think, it’s a complicated answer I don’t want to get into. You respond “The definition and qualification of organic changes often. We’re seeking the best products we can, and we don’t label them organic, until we know that they are. ___% of products labeled ‘organic’ might not be. We want to be sure.”

–Understand that an interview is not necessarily a conversation. You and your reporter want it to appear as one. The reporter has an agenda. You have an agenda, and you are hoping to find common ground. With confidence, preparation, a deep breath and a smile, a tough answer can be easily answered.

Some advice from others:

From Cision: Five Tricky Question Types and How To Answer Them.

From UCI’s Strategic Communications and Public Affairs: How to Answer Difficult Questions.

From The Society for Neuroscience: Tips for Media Interviews.


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.

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