By Chris Gilmour

Even 21 years later, there’s one Jeremy Paxman interview that strikes terror into anyone who thinks they will ever face difficult questions from journalists during a crisis management situation.

Paxo, in full flight, asked Michael Howard the same question 12 times in 90 seconds as the then-Conservative MP steadfastly refused to answer.

Time revealed an important fact – Paxman was having to stretch out the interview for production reasons and had run out of questions. Howard’s refusal to answer inadvertently helped pad out the show.

But the image of two heavyweights butting heads, and the impression that Howard had something to hide, persist. Anyone would rather be in Paxo’s shoes than Howard’s.

Matt Allwright on BBC1’s Watchdog is a great exponent of a similar kind of aggressive questioning – although with him, you get the impression he’d rather not have answers, just footage of someone looking guilty as they walk away from the camera or slam a car door on him.

Barking questions

One of my favourite Allwright moments was seeing footage of him barking questions through a closed door – when the guy he thought was behind it was sitting in our boardroom two miles away, sipping Nespresso and eating Tunnock’s Teacakes with me!

Providing journalists with shaky camera footage, or a door-slamming emotional response, is exactly what you shouldn’t do in the face of difficult questions from journalists.

Now, there are two distinct ways you could come in for a grilling – the appointment and the ambush.

In both situations, remember to watch your body language – no nodding, shaking your head or folding your arms. And listen very carefully to the question … you don’t want to get caught out by a cunningly couched leading question that starts, “Would you say that …” because if you say yes, that’s what you’ve said.

If your public relations agency is worth its salt, you’ll have had comprehensive media training. So you’ll know the drill, what to do and what not to.

Proper preparation will get you through in both scenarios. Here are some of the things you should consider …


The appointment

No one suddenly finds themselves in the Newsnight studio or chatting to Emily Maitlis over a video link. There’s a whole production team that sets these interviews up. Generally, the production team will give you a steer on what you’ll be asked.

It’s the same with news conferences – they are planned in advance and your public relations agency will have a good idea who is attending and what they’ll be looking for.

There’s plenty of time during either of these processes to get your crisis PR advisor involved so you can develop your responses.

This is where your crisis management PR support comes into its own. You’ll be answering journalists’ questions because you’re at the centre of a news story. Putting a human face on the company’s side of the story personalises its argument in a way that a press statement cannot.

Experience with journalists helps the public relations team predict which path the interview is likely to take and what subjects you want to avoid. They will work on lines you should take. It’s quite common for these to be along the lines of “we take this seriously, we’re investigating, we’re cooperating fully.”

The trick is to turn each question back to the topic you want to talk about. Phrases such as, “what we’re aiming to do is,” or “we’ve made it quite clear that,” help you reshape the question to fit your response.

There is no room for lying, however. You need to tell the truth – but tell it well.

If all you can do is hold your hands up to a mistake that you’ve made or take responsibility for an action with negative consequences, swallow your pride and do it. Contrition doesn’t need forgiveness but lying does.  By the same token, if you’ve done nothing wrong then don’t apologise just to appease a journalist because this can have negative effects down the line.

Remember, effective crisis management is about the long-term health of your brand and sometimes it’s healthier to take a short-term hit.

Role play – with the crisis PR advisor taking the part of the interviewer – will help knock rough edges off your responses and make the experience less daunting.

When it’s time for the real thing, take a moment to consider your response and remember to breathe. The temptation to gabble into a microphone is great, so speak clearly and pace yourself.

If you’re quizzed about something you can’t go into, give a reason for that, whether it’s commercial sensitivities or because of the legal process. It’s about being as open as you can be and appearing to be communicative and respectful. Again, body language and tone are as important as what you say.


The ambush

When you get to the garden gate, they’re waiting – a TV reporter with a cameraman at his shoulder and a threatening-looking boom mic dangling over your head, or a newspaper reporter with a snapper firing off shots using a long lens from a car on the other side of the street.

Much beloved by consumer TV shows, documentary makers and tabloid reporters, this happens when you’ve either not properly responded to interview requests or they want to catch you off-guard. It can be more mean-spirited than that – sometimes, they just want to make you look bad.

You might have your family with you and it’s understandable that you’d want to protect them from scrutiny and perhaps that could appear aggressive. The key here is to keep your cool.

Don’t barge through the waiting press pack – acknowledge them, but keep moving and be civil. Don’t turn away or cover your face. If your family is with you, remind the reporters that they are not of public interest and ask to be interviewed away from them.

Calmly and seriously ask if they can give you a few minutes to prepare and arrange a location for the interview. Use that extra time to take some PR advice from your crisis management team and to take a few calming breaths.

Remember those phrases that help you turn a question to your advantage and get you back on your agreed line.

And don’t forget that there’s no formal beginning or end to an interview. Anything you say, even while the cameraman is sorting out his focus, will be used. Watch your words, treat every microphone as a live microphone.

Reporters will try to badger you and undermine you. It’s their job to get an emotional response – but you have to remain rational, no matter how much you may be seething inside.

You both have a job to do – theirs is to rattle you, yours is to remain unrattled. Take deep breaths, consider your responses, and tell the best truth you can.

There are times when it’s all about the interviewer’s ego – and these can be problematic.

Richard Madeley made himself look foolish in the eyes of most (not all, it must be said) when he terminated an interview with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. He said he “did it for the viewers” because Williamson was evading his questions, but many of the questions simply couldn’t be answered and Madeley knew that. He set the wrong agenda and left himself no option but to terminate.

Serves him right for trying to be a poor man’s Piers Morgan – he should stick to speaking with Z-list celebs with his missus. 


For help and advice call our crisis management experts now on 0800 612 9890.