Media interviews: how to handle tough questions

Media interviews can be nerve-wracking. But they don’t have to be.

If you learn in advance how to give great answers to tough questions, then encounters with journalists can be highly beneficial for your organisation – and even enjoyable for you.

In this blog, Creative Bridge’s friend and media training expert Michael Dodd offers tips on how to handle tough questions when the world is watching.

Media interviews: why a considered response is critical

In any high-pressure media interview, it’s important to prepare for tough questions in advance.

Failing to do this and avoiding a proper response during an interview can lead to very serious consequences. 

An example involving one of the UK’s biggest housebuilders underlines this point.

The challenge of surprise media questions

When Persimmon’s then CEO Jeff Fairburn received a record £75 million bonus in December 2017, it grabbed a lot of media attention.

The uncapped bonus – linked to company share price – was labelled “excessive” by shareholders. Charities, politicians and Persimmon customers also criticised the award.

After an initial storm, the issue gradually disappeared from the media spotlight. But it resurfaced almost a year later, when the BBC’s Look North programme interviewed Mr Fairburn at the opening of a Yorkshire brick factory.

During the interview, the reporter asked about the bonus. This seemed to surprise Mr Fairburn, who didn’t answer and walked away. He could be heard off-camera saying the question was “most unfortunate”. The BBC played the non-answer over and over.

This absence of a considered response sparked more interest in the original story. Other news outlets showed the interview and reminded people about the bonus.

As a result, Persimmon announced that Mr Fairburn was stepping down as the situation was having a “negative impact” on the company’s reputation.

But the appalling interview kept on haunting the company even after Mr Fairburn’s enforced departure.

When Persimmon later hit the headlines again, with media coverage focusing on its record breaking £1-billion profit, the news outlets continued to refer to the bonus and the interview walkout in their stories.

Badly handled interviews have lasting consequences.

Learning points for media interviews

There are four key points we can learn from this story.

1. Ducking tough questions is best avoided

Mr Fairburn’s record-breaking bonus was newsworthy because:

  • Executive pay stories intrigue and horrify the public; editors know that people love reading them
  • Board members had appeared before MPs to discuss the company’s bonus scheme – so there was a political element as well as a social justice issue
  • There was a wider “public interest” element (meaning it was in the interest of taxpayers to know how some of their money was being spent) because company’s subsidies under the government’s Help to Buy scheme for home purchases were boosting Persimmon’s financial results.

These factors meant Mr Fairburn was more likely to get repeat questions on the topic in future. Although the brick factory opening was potentially a good news story, it carried the risk of ‘curveball’ questions on the bonus which Persimmon should have been only too aware.

Whenever you are preparing for a media interview, one of the key questions you need to ask yourself during your preparation is “What else is potentially on the media radar?”

2. Preparation, preparation, preparation

If you have a known weakness or potential ‘hot topic’, make sure you’re well-prepared for tough questions that might come up about it. Write a list of the questions you dread the most and think through possible answers before facing a journalist.

In this case, the big question started with a comment:

“Persimmon’s obviously doing well this year, did well last year”

…before moving into a direct question:

“That was reflected in your bonus. Do you have any regrets about the furore surrounding that?”

It’s a tough question, certainly. But whenever you contemplate a tough question during your preparation ask yourself: “What are the best things I can say on this topic?”

This may not give you the entire answer. But it highlights some good things that you can include in your answers, that may not otherwise occur to you.

By walking away, Mr Fairburn left a gap for viewers and commentators to make up their own minds. That prompted media outlets to remind people of the original coverage and shift the story focus entirely back onto the massive bonus.

3. Can’t give a response? You must say why

If you can’t or don’t want to discuss a topic, you must briefly explain why this is the case. For example, if legal restrictions or client confidentiality mean you can’t say anything, be clear about it at the start of your answer.  This takes the pressure off.

But the key thing here, is to then make sure you go on to say something useful on the topic. With this approach, you can get a positive point across off the back of a tough question.

4. Planning and preparation

However clever you are, it’s often difficult to think up that great answer on the spot during a media interview. Giving great answers is enhanced by planning, preparation and practice. Media training sessions show you how to do this.

If you’ve done this in advance, the essence of your great answers is already in your head. You just need to adapt the best of this to each question. It’s a much easier task than coming up with a brilliant response in the heat of the moment.

When you deliver your pre-planned answers in a way that sounds spontaneous you can make them look great – and relaxed. And this makes it so much easier to come across with impressive impact and a high level of confidence.

Media interview training workshops

If you need to prepare for a big interview, tailored media training can help boost your skills and confidence.

Creative Bridge runs group workshops and one-to-one sessions, designed to equip you to answer tough questions. The skills you’ll gain will also help you face tough questions from beyond the media – from clients, prospects, customers and even challenging colleagues.

In the training, we’ll give you a framework to respond to challenges, and show you how to apply this in any situation. We’ll also work with you to help you improve what you say; how you say it; and the way you look, sound and feel when responding.

To find out more or book a training session, contact us now.

Michael Dodd is a Creative Bridge associate and runs media response master classes for the agency. He’s also the author of ‘Great Answers to Tough Questions at Work‘, published by Wiley and given Gold Endorsement by the Chartered Management Institute.

Further reading

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Michelle Hallmark

About Michelle Hallmark

Leads our new business and client development strategy. Formerly our head of communications and a NCTJ and CIPR qualified news reporter with local, regional and national experience.
Michelle’s passion: snazzy shoes.