No one is born with the grace and agility to answer tough questions off the cuff. Media training is an important primer. However, practice in the trenches of real-world media interviews is the only direct route to competence. And even the best spokesperson can stumble (or jump) deep into the fray in the face of a sharpened or unexpected attack. The fray is not a place we recommend; it inhabits blame so deeply that few people emerge better for being there.The GOP debates and considerable media attention about jobs have provided some good examples of how to handle the questions that you’re trying to avoid or didn’t expect. These fiery topics demonstrate how confidence, honesty and a thick skin can overcome almost any tricky interview. On the other hand, a deep dive into the fray can light up the kind of side story that slingshots the conversation in a new and completely irrelevant direction. Let’s look at a few examples.
The Unexpected Issue: Politico conducted a pizza taste test with panel of, well, three: Doug Heye (a Republican strategist who covers restaurants for Capitol File), Karen Finney (a Democratic commentator) and Nycci Nellis (who runs TheListAreYouOnIt.com).
In this blind taste test that included plain cheese slices from Pizza Hut, zpizza, Ledo Pizza, Papa John’s and Godfather’s Pizza, Godfather’s came in last. Nellis said, “It’s the most unappetizing….The cheese is really sour! The crust is like a sponge.”
Naturally, Politico went to Herman Cain, GOP hopeful and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, for his reaction. What did the Cain campaign do? Spokesman J.D. Gordon told Politico, “At the end of the day, I think we can all agree on liking pizza. What’s not to like?” Who can argue with that?
The Question You Were Hoping To Avoid: During the October 18 GOP debates at the Venetian in Las Vegas, Rick Perry went on the offensive with Mitt Romney about his alleged employment of illegal immigrants. As reported in the New York Times, Perry’s attack was dogged and included many interruptions. Perry said, “Mitt, you lose all of your standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home.” He added, “And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is, on its face, the height of hypocrisy.”
Romney’s response was drawn out and zigzagged from denial (“Rick, um, I don’t think I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life. I’m looking forward to finding your facts.”) to explanation ( “We hired a lawn company to mow our lawn and they had illegal immigrants working there. And when that was pointed out to us, we let them go.”). Romney worked to direct the conversation back to immigration policy (his and Perry’s), which was a nice attempt, but it was too late. At one point, Perry interrupted him again and Romney responded in an uncharacteristic outburst, which included these lines:
- “I’m speaking, I’m speaking, I’m speaking. This is how the rules work here.”
- “Would you please wait! Are you just going to keep talking?”
- “This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, so I understand that, and you’re going to get testy.”
- “I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you have got to let both people speak.”
Like the pizza taste test, this topic was irrelevant to the debate. Unlike the pizza taste test, it is a topic of importance, and it was designed as a pointed attack that was meant to discredit Romney’s stance. A brief and measured one-sentence explanation and a bridge to the more important topic ends these kinds of discussions. Unfortunately, as it always tends to do, this particular spark of controversy dominated many headlines instead of the candidates’ proposals for creating jobs.
Side note: It also felt a bit wrong for Rick Perry to refer to Cain as “brother,” but that’s a topic for another post entirely!
The Issues You Plan For: A few weeks ago, Leslie Stahl interviewed General Electric CEO and Job Czar for Obama, Jeffrey Immelt. She introduced the piece with this: “Not since the Great Depression has unemployment been this bad for this long. And one of the reasons is that U.S. companies have gone abroad for their workers and their profits….No company has gone global more aggressively than General Electric, the conglomerate that makes everything from refrigerators to MRI machines to jet engines.”
Immelt answered her questions easily, appearing comfortable and as though he wanted to answer tough questions, and did so often. Although this was before the headlines of Occupy Wall Street, Stahl asked him about the negative public sentiment toward corporations. He responded, “I think this notion that it’s the population of the U.S. against the big companies is just wrong. It’s just wrong-minded and when I walk through a factory with you or anybody, you know, our employees basically like us. They root for us, they want us to win. I don’t know why you don’t.” He had turned the issue around.
On creating jobs here in the U.S. versus overseas, Immelt answered with honesty and pragmatism, “I’m a complete globalist. I think like a global CEO. But I’m an American. I run an American company. But in order for GE to be successful in the coming years, I’ve gotta sell my products in every corner of the world.” He went on: “If I wasn’t out chasing orders in every corner of the world, we’d have tens of thousand fewer employees in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas….I’m never going to apologise for that, ever, ever.”
I strongly encourage you to watch the video because Immelt’s presence was half of the equation. He was confident, comfortable and optimistic. Most importantly, he was honest and didn’t let Stahl put him on the defensive.
Last week, Occupy Wall Street protesters occupied Immelt’s front lawn, despite his recent statements supporting the demonstrations. Clare O’Connor at Forbes summarizes GE’s response and Immelt’s, which both stayed above the fray and focused on the issue at hand: job generation.
Andrew Williams, media relations director for General Electric, said, “The protesters certainly have a right to share their opinion, but they don’t have a right to their own set of facts. The fact is that GE is investing in America. Since 2009 alone, GE has announced more than 10,000 new U.S. manufacturing jobs and this week, GE announced that it will build its 16th new factory in the U.S. since 2009.”
In the end, a spokesperson’s job is to keep his or her audience focused on the vision and the issue at hand. It’s easier said than done, and often requires an extremely thick skin. A command of the facts coupled with a honed filter for separating bait from substantive debate and a calm demeanor will mitigate many of these tough situations.
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