Oh, those great “what if” questions – reporters love those. Why? Well, reporters love a great story and sometimes the story doesn’t materialize the way they hoped it would.
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 that, 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…”
In my media training work, I often recommend that when you’re asked to speculate, apply the Block, Bridge and Hook Technique:
- Block: “It would be inappropriate for me to speculate…”
- Bridge: “But what I can tell you is…”
- Hook: 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.
Use the Block, Bridge and Hook Technique when a reporter asks you to speak for someone else. The block response should be, “I can’t speak for them, but what I can tell you is…”
One more media training lesson we should 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 then correct facts without ever 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.
Final media training tip: In the end, you must realize that YOU are in charge of the interview. Don’t relinquish control to the reporter. Tell your story your way and you win!