Answer the Question!

Answer the Question!

Young BoyGood public relations people know how to get their clients ready for interviews. We know our clients’ goals and objectives, and can help them project a favorable image if we prepare them well. But what happens when we don’t? Below is a recent case in point from ‘Face the Nation’ with Bob Schieffer.

I think Schieffer is one the smartest interviewers in the business and I enjoy watching him on ‘Face the Nation’ because he’s totally prepared. His questions are often tough, but almost always fair and based on facts. From a PR point of view, that’s the best you can ask for and you should be able to get any client ready to engage with him pretty easily.

So why do I frequently want to yell at his guests, “Answer the damn question!”

Last Sunday, Schieffer shared my frustration when he wrapped up the show with a commentary about political candidates who don’t answer direct questions. You can see the full segment here, “When politicians don’t answer questions,” but I especially loved this rant:

“In this age of sophisticated information management and consultant-driven politics where everyone has a media coach and a strategy guru, it is all the vogue in public relations to tell your client, ‘Here are a couple of answers. No matter what you’re asked, just give these answers.

“Well, I hate to hurt your feelings, candidates, but you’re paying good money for bad advice.”

He went on to talk about one of his favorite guests, former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, who would sometimes decline to come on the show because he had “nothing to say.”

I say ‘Bravo!’ to both – Mr. Schieffer for calling bullshit on some stupid advice, and Senator Nunn for knowing when he had nothing to add to the discussion. As Schieffer notes, his audience is smart enough to recognize a ’non-answer’ when they hear it.

So are most audiences…

I haven’t worked with politicians, but I have worked with plenty of people who are deeply involved in politics, and I know they’d agree not all exposure is good. Sure, sometimes questions can’t—or won’t—be answered in depth, but the question should be acknowledged with a proper response before moving on to the next subject. And, the response should fit with the topic, and not be a total non sequitur.

Preparing Your Client Interviews

This isn’t rocket science, just common sense, but here are my suggestions for helping your clients have a successful interview experience:

  1. Have a fact-finding conversation with your client.  Oh, and discuss early on that keeping secrets from your communications person is not a good idea. Tell them it will be their fault if they walk into something they’re not prepared for because they didn’t tell you about it.
  2. Provide the person being interviewed with three or four key talking points for every topic likely to come up.
  3. For the rare times when a client can’t or won’t answer direct questions about a certain topic, help them prepare an on-topic, easy-to-remember statement. Or, simply decline the interview. Period. This is a much better choice than insulting the reporter and audience with a non-answer. Saying nothing almost always trumps not answering direct questions.

Credibility is hard to earn and easy to lose when we don’t do our homework…  What do you think? Is Schieffer right? How do you prepare your clients for interviews?

(Added Note: Apologies if you are getting this a second time. The RSS feed was broken when it was first posted. I’m learning, hang in there…)

(Another note: We have fixed the RSS Feed but if you subscribed before this post you should delete that feed and set up a new one. Sorry for the inconvenience!)

  • Hi Rick,

    Great photo – this must have been you as a kid! LOL

    Loved the post… I, too, get so tired of listening to politicians who don’t say anything. But I have to wonder if this really faulty PR or the logical result of America’s seemingly endless succession of faulty candidates for public office.


    October 11, 2011 at 4:01 pm
    • Thanks! When I was that young we didn’t have a computer and mouse, but I thought the expression was perfect for my mood when I hear people pulling this ‘stuff’ in interviews.

      I think it is a losing way to handle an interview and bad advice for anyone in communications to give a client.

      October 11, 2011 at 4:48 pm
    • I don’t know that we can blame it on faulty candidates although I do feel there are many of those. But it isn’t just PR people who are telling them they can just say what they to want to say. Frankly, I think sometimes the media should be more direct in calling them out when they do it.

      And hey, the audiences have plenty of ways to express their frustrations through social media when this happens. Maybe we need more of that too…

      October 11, 2011 at 5:23 pm
  • Mark Diamond

    Rick, I’d like to know your thoughts about “over preparing” your boss for an interview. Is there such a thing? I won’t name names, but in this case, we would think of every possible question and topic and provide talking points, Q’s and A’s, fact sheets and vignettes. It would take one or two people a week to request and pull together all the data (not to mention the dozens of folks who had to find and provide the data to us). In the end, we sometimes had a 40-plus-page prep package. The package would often get kicked back and forth multiple times until someone finally blessed it and it was handed to the “boss,” sometimes only a hour or two before the interview. I thought it was serious overkill. And I rarely saw the boss use the information we provided.

    October 11, 2011 at 7:49 pm
    • Mark Diamond

      By the way, I enjoyed reading your post. I’m glad someone pointed me here, and I’ll be back for sure.

      October 11, 2011 at 7:51 pm
    • Mark,

      Thanks for visiting.

      Yes, I do think we can ‘over prepare’ the boss or the client for an interview. And, a detailed list of possible questions and answers is something I stopped doing when a baby lawyer started commenting on the theoretical question – don’t they have better things to do?

      If we condition the boss to respond to a specific question with certain points and the reporter asks it a different way it can be a problem. Being in the room with the reporter is tough. Trying to think of every way a reporter could ask a question on a certain subject – and teach the boss how to respond to all of them – is impossible.

      We really need to think about the ‘basic’ subjects the reporter may be interested in and give the boss a few clear points on the topic / issue. The boss may have to say something like, “I can’t get too specific, but…” and then go with the agreed / approved message points for that subject. Our job is to give them smart responses on the subject regardless of how the question is asked.

      When you talk about the package getting kicked back I’m pretty sure it is the same thing as the baby lawyer editing the question in a standard Q&A that tries to envision every possible question.

      Ain’t going to happen… It will get asked in different way. But if we’ve got the boss / client prepared for the subject, not the specific question, most will be able to handle it.

      It is not easy to break the habit of a 40+ page prep package but if you can it will be better – for you and the boss. The real world stops following our scripted responses at about page one. Give the boss talking points that are flexible. Tell the lawyers you can’t possibly predict the exact question or the exact answer but if you’ve all agreed on the major talking points it will work out for everyone.

      The other point to make, to the boss and the lawyers, it is too hard to be an effective spokesperson if we’re trying to lock down how you respond to an exact question that might not get asked. That just adds stress to the boss in already stressful situation.

      We need to help them find the easiest way to do it right. Too much detail just increases their stress in an interview.

      Our job is to make it easier for them… Does that help?

      October 11, 2011 at 8:48 pm
      • Mark Diamond

        It helps immensely. It’s a nice surprise that after 20+ years in PA, I still enjoy learning new things each and every day. And today, you reminded me of what’s important: “We need to help them find the easiest way to do it right.” I guess it’s one of those “can’t see the forest through the trees” lessons learned. Sometimes we get so wrapped around the tiniest details, we forget what’s important. Thanks, Rick. Time to read some more of your blog.

        October 12, 2011 at 5:34 pm
        • Thanks, Mark.

          Sometimes we do need to step back and look at the bigger picture. There are also processes that get institutionalized and accepted when we should be questioning them. That’s not always easy to do, but it is usually worth the fight to get rid of many of them. What else could get done in the time it takes to do a 40 page briefing? Probably some important things.

          Thanks for what you do.

          October 12, 2011 at 6:36 pm
  • Danielle Smith

    Prefect. Thank you for this. I can’t tell you the number of times I have all but yelled, “Just answer the question!” at the TV while watching an interview. The pain I feel at that moment is second only to my physical reaction to the words, “no comment”. The interviewee might as well paint a bullseye on their forehead….and not simply from the interviewer’s perspective. Audiences are saavy enough to recognize question dodging when they see it. Well done.

    October 13, 2011 at 7:35 pm
    • Thanks, Danielle.

      I actually cringe more when they give a non-answer then when saying no / I can’t comment would make more sense. Sometimes you can’t comment, but just say why. Ignoring the question and launching into something on another subject is just rude and wrong.

      I totally agree with you that the audience is likely to be the most offended. Why would you take that chance. I don’t get it and think some people are getting VERY bad advice when they handle things that way.

      October 13, 2011 at 8:39 pm
  • One thing I would add to this, and something we always tell our clients, look the INTERVIEWER in the eyes. Not the camera, not the cameraman, not your PR person, not the audience, the interviewer. In fact, I show video of athletes (they’re the worst at it) who look at the camera, especially when being accused of wrong doing (cough, Tiger Woods, cough). It makes them look MORE guilty.

    The other thing we do, to your point, is tell our clients it’s OK to: A) say some information is proprietary, B) not comment on geopolitical events (our clients aren’t politicians) or foreign affairs, and C) to bring the interview back to your own agenda. But that does NOT mean not answering the question. I hate that.

    October 14, 2011 at 7:10 am
    • One more thing…kind of to Mark’s question below. We used to work with The Catfish Institute. I loved that account, for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because it allowed me to get some regulatory experience. You see, 10 years ago, the Japanese were dumping catfish into the United States and calling it U.S. Farm-Raised. So, not only did we have a big branding issue, we had to deal with lawmakers on helping us prevent this.

      The cool thing about farm-raised catfish is they feed at the top of the water and, when fed, it’s a VERY cool visual. Well I managed to get 60 Minutes interested in the story. They sent five cameras, two reporters, and more assistants than I could count. They spent two days with us. They talked to the association, to farmers, to consumers, and to some of the celebrity chefs we were using to get the fish on menus in white tablecloth restaurants.

      During media training (which, BTW, lasted three days because we were overly preparing the client), the ONLY thing the president of the association was told NOT to discuss was what was happening with the Japanese. It wasn’t public yet and we weren’t ready to answer the tough questions from 60 Minutes. They didn’t know to bring it up…our only risk was if he brought it up.

      He did a phenomenal job. The story was EXACTLY how I had imagined it in my head. Everyone left in waves. As the last producer was carting his stuff to the car, guess what our client said? He said, “Man. I sure am glad you didn’t ask me about what’s going on with the Japanese.”

      Guess what the story was about?

      Always remember to tell your clients you aren’t “off” until they’re a safe distance away from you.

      October 14, 2011 at 7:19 am
      • Great points, Gini. Thank you.

        Staring into the camera does NOT work and yes, Mr. Woods, is frequently guilty of it. Besides ‘looking guilty’ I think it is just another way of being rude to the person who is interviewing you and that doesn’t go over well with the audience they are sharing with you. And, in most cases, it is THEIR audience.

        Sorry to hear it, but I can relate to your Catfish Institute experience. Reporters and producers, particularly for a show like 60 Minutes, are very good at putting people at ease – it gets them a better segment and, all too frequently, information they wouldn’t have gotten. If a reporter can hear you the “microphone” is always on.

        One of my former clients had very cordial relations with the media before he got in some legal difficulties. He hired me when he started getting burned for talking with the media the same way he had before the trouble. The bantering they used to ignore became the headlines. In that case I just had to become the spokesperson because they were ruining him. They may like you, but they’re after the news.

        Reporters aren’t the enemy but they do have a job to do. Never let your guard down!

        Thank you for stopping by and adding to the conversation, Gini.

        October 14, 2011 at 8:16 am
      • Great story, Gini!

        October 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm
  • Jim

    This post is both poignant and pointed. As a reformed journalist, I’ve covered more than my share of politicians. And, as a rule, they’ve historically been evasive on sensitive subjects. But the new generation takes evasiveness to new heights. Somehow, consultants have wrongly advised candidates and incumbents alike to answer the questions they want asked — and ignore the rest.

    As a voter and professional communicator I find this trend more than disconcerting. If you seek elected office, you have a responsibility to communicate — a responsibility shared by people who seek publicity through traditional and social media channels.

    A curmudgeonly old editor of mine was fond of saying, “If you don’t want to answer my questions, take out an ad.”

    Real media trainers and legitimate communications counselors recognize that the trade off for publicity is shared information. And anyone who doesn’t understand that shouldn’t be given the forum.

    However, I must part company with Rick just a bit. I do believe that journalists who don’t like sources who don’t answer questions should do more than complain about it. They should make their displeasure felt by not giving uncommunicative politicians a forum. I guess that puts me in the camp of curmudgeonly old editors.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm
    • Jim,

      I don’t think we part company in this at all. If someone is uncommunicative then journalists should not waste their time or their audiences.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      October 30, 2011 at 4:59 pm