Media Training 14: Reporters like to Speculate

By Gerard Braud 

What’s the worst that could happen? How much worse could it get? But what if… ? Oh, those great “what if” questions.

Reporters love the what if question. Why?

Well, reporters lover a great story and sometimes the story doesn’t materialize the way they hoped it would. Remember all the lessons on selfishness that we discussed in lesson 3? Well all of that comes to fruition and is personified by the what if question.

Such questions indicate that the reporter is as disappointed as a 4-year-old who was hoping you would stop to buy them ice cream, but you didn’t.

Beware of reporters who ask you to speculate because you are heading into very dangerous territory. If you do speculate, you’ve made the story bigger than what it is.

The most important phrase you can use when addressing such questions is to say, “I couldn’t speculate on the, but what I can tell you is…”

Another variation of that answer is to say, “It would be inappropriate for me to speculate on that, but what I can tell you is…”

Such answers apply the block, bridge and hook technique we discussed in lesson 12. In this case you block their speculations right up front with the phase, “It would be inappropriate for me to speculate…” , then the phase, “but what I can tell you is…” should bridge of redirect the reporter back to one of your key messages and one of the facts that you have previously confirmed. Ideally you should create an additional hook that keeps the reporter from asking another speculative question as a follow up. But the most important thing that you are doing is immediately putting an end to the speculation and sticking to the facts.

Akin to this is when a reporter will ask you to speak for someone else. The proper response should be, “I can’t speak for them, but what I can tell you is…”  You then use the same block, bridge and hook techniques we discussed previously.

One more lesson we should also address here is how to handle the reporter that misstates certain key facts in their question.

It has been my experience that most spokespeople try to gingerly work their way back to a key message and the correct facts without every clearly telling the reporter they are wrong. Well my friends, that seldom works.

If a reporter misstates a fact in their question you have permission to stop them dead in their tracks if necessary and say, “I’m sorry, but you misstated a key fact in your question.” At that time you should give them the correct fact. Another variation is to use the phrase, “I can’t agree with the premise of your questions.”

Over the years many spokespeople have confessed to me that they are afraid that such an approach could be perceived by the reporter as hostile. I personally think you can do it without being hostile. In fact, I have found that the dynamics of the interview or news conference will change in your favor because the reporter sees that you are in charge and that you are holding them accountable. The reporter will not only choose their words more carefully in the remainder of the interview, but they will also choose their words more carefully when writing their script.

Ultimately you must realize that you are in charge of the interview. Don’t relinquish control to the reporter.

In our next lesson we’ll examine how a spokesperson can get the most out of a media training class.

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