How to avoid tricky questions from journalists?

In our guest blog this week, Simon Palan of Refine Media explains:


From an early age we are all taught to be polite by answering people’s questions. Being responsive is ingrained into our social conditioning. This is great news for journalists.

As a former business and finance news reporter and presenter at ABC TV in Sydney, I’ve seen many executives answer journalist’s questions when it wasn’t in their best interests to do so. Many don’t realise they have the option of avoiding the question, even if the interview is being broadcast live. Politicians do this every day.

Over the last decade, media fragmentation has led to millions of new media outlets, many of them dealing with niche topics. This means just about anyone could find themselves being interviewed by a reporter of some kind. It’s no longer just about mainstream mass media. It’s also about smaller online publications, blogs and vlogs.

The first thing to do is find out if the interview is being broadcast live. Most of the time it won’t be, enabling you wider scope to avoid to answering curly questions. But the following tips also apply to live interviews, and equally to interviews by journalists from newspapers, websites and radio stations.

1) Preparation is key: Before the interview, try to pre-empt all the tough questions and think of ways to answer them in a positive and confident way. While preparing, choose 3 or 4 key messages which you’d like to get across. If you get a tough question, address the question very briefly, then simply revert to one of your key messages. The journalist may press you further on the question at hand, this is their job. But they won’t disrespect you for not answering them. They get denied access to information all the time.

2) Don’t repeat a journalist’s negative statements: Some reporters ask questions in a hostile manner in a bid to put you on the back foot. When answering, always stay positive.

For example: Question – “Your customers have told me they get awful service from your company.”

Don’t answer: “I don’t think our service is awful.”

Do answer: “Our customers get excellent service.”

3) Say what you want and then stop: Some reporters choose to stay silent in the hope that you ramble on and say something which makes you look bad. Filling the silence is the journalist’s job, not yours.

4) Tell the journalist you don’t have the requested information with you at the time and offer to give it to them after the interview. Then, if they follow up, offer information you are willing to share, or don’t reply at all. Again, this is something journalists are used to.

5) Refer the question to someone else: Say you’re not the appropriate person from your company to answer the question and that you’ll try to get the right person in touch with them.

6) Buy time: Ask the journalist to clarify their question. This will allow you more time to construct an answer. A few seconds thinking time could make all the difference. Also feel free to say: “Give me a moment to consider my answer.” Most journalists don’t mind waiting, but, of course, there’s less scope to delay your answer if the interview is live.

7) Avoid the term ‘no comment’ if possible: This phrase is over-used and often sounds unhelpful, shady and even arrogant.

8) Change the question:  As an interviewee you have the ability to change the scope of the question. For example, you can say: “Yes, X is a problem. But we also need to consider the larger issue here…” You can also change the nature of the question. For example, say: “To answer that question properly, I first need to explain that…”

9) Don’t criticise other organisations or people: Journalists might try to get you to do this, but it’s not usually a good idea because in the published story it might look like you are busk passing, or it may trigger a tense relationship with the person or firm being criticised. Instead say: “We’ve all got to work together on this…”

10) ‘Off the record’ doesn’t cover you: If a journalist presses you for information by saying it’s ‘off the record,’ simply tell them you don’t do off the record.

Finally, and obviously, always make sure you stay calm. Avoid giving an emotional reaction or that could end up being the story. When you do get hit with tricky questions, don’t think the journalist is out to get you. They are just doing their job. By following these quick tips you can give them a story without compromising your professional integrity.