By Chris Gilmour

I call it The Columbo Moment: the final question that skewers an interviewee. It’s one of the techniques journalists use that we feature in our crisis PR media training workshops.

The idea is seen in every episode of Columbo. The dishevelled detective looks like he’s heading for the door after a head-to-head with the prime suspect. Said suspect seems to be getting away with it.

Then Columbo pauses and asks: “Just one more question.” Boom. Case closed.

Interviewers will often chuck in this kind of curveball at the end of interview, just as the interviewee is starting to relax.

They’re relying on catching the interviewee off-guard, getting them to stutter and stammer through a half-thought-out answer.

But, as so much of our media training underlines, perfect preparation prevents poor performance. Quite simply, you don’t go into an interview without all the answers to all the questions you would expect to be asked – good and bad.

And if you don’t have an answer, you’ve got to have a crisis PR response that gets you back on track and bridges back on to safer ground. For example: “That’s something we’ll be looking into but I’d just like to underline …”

I’ve spoken before about the two types of interview you’re likely to face – the appointment and the ambush. This advice on other techniques interviewers will use to harass and harry you. 

The two-parter

One of the basics of our media training is that you have to listen to the question. Sometimes an interviewer will layer two ideas together: “You’ve announced recorded losses, what will that mean for the future of your workforce?”

But have you announced record losses, or are they in line with previous years. 

Challenge any assertions that are not true, then bridge back to your safe ground. 

In your own words

If there’s a complex subject under discussion, some interviewers boil down your answer and regurgitate it prefixed with: “So, what you’re saying is …” 

But is that what you are saying? Again, evaluate the question before agreeing. Challenge what is untrue.

There’s a good chance the interviewer isn’t trying to dupe you, just make things clear in their head and help the audience understand. But don’t give ground if what they are saying is incorrect. 

Filling the void

Hundreds of journalists who learned their trade under a famous reporter-turned-lecturer  “the vacuum technique”. He’d walk into the noisy class, sit down and remain silent as chat ceased then bubbled back up again.

Then he’d tell his students how his vacuum technique worked: people don’t like silence, they want to fill it. So if someone thinks they’ve answered your question, wait a while longer to see what else slips out.

Don’t fill the void. If an interviewer goes quiet and you’ve said all you have to say, keep schtum.

I’ve started so I’ll finish …

Sometimes an interviewer, either desperate to get a chat back on track or desperate to badger a spokesperson into slipping up, will interrupt an interviewee time and time again.

This is when you keep your head. The interviewer might be being rude, but as long as you don’t react negatively, the audience will stay on your side.

Stay calm, stick to your line and don’t rise to the bait is our standard media training advice.

Background details 

A reporter might ask an interviewee for background details. These can amount to basic facts and figures and information that supports a story – but always establish how these are going to be reported.

Will they be used as quotes and will they be attributed to a source? Are they going to be used in the story or are they just details to help the reporter get inside the story? Are the questions touching on a controversial area, or on something outside the spokesperson’s remit or expertise? 

Don’t walk into a minefield. Answer only what you are comfortable answering.

Deadline rush

When a journalist says they are close to their deadline, one of two things is happening. They are either close to their deadline, or they want to put pressure on the interviewee in the hope they’ll get a naturalistic and potentially damning response. 

Now is not the time for an immediate reaction. Explain you’ll look into their query and get back to them before their deadline. Ask exactly what they want to know. Then investigate, establish your answer, get back in touch and stick to your line.

In crisis PR, preparation is key, even when time is short. 

Be careful who is listening

Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe is one of the most famous victims of the “hot mic”. On the day his chain’s merger with Asda was announced, he sat in a TV studio singing “We’re In The Money” ahead of an interview – unaware his microphone was on.

Of course, others have fallen foul. Remember Gordon Brown calling a Labour supporter a “bigoted old woman” as he spoke about someone he’d met on the campaign trail, forgetting he’d been mic-ed up?

There’s a simple way to avoid looking stupid in this situation: if there’s a microphone in the room, assume it’s on. People may say, “Assume nothing, it makes an ass out of u and me,” but this is one situation where the reverse is true.

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

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