Media Training: When Reporters Bully You


A friend whose organization is often in the media spotlight recently told me a story about her boss. Her boss, let's call her Susan, is on the leadership team for a lobbying group that represents a somewhat unpopular industry.

Susan was interviewed a few months ago by Dateline NBC Correspondent Lea Thompson about a topic that could make her organization look bad. She knew she'd have to answer tough questions.

Nervous about saying something embarrassing about her organization, Susan carefully prepared for the interview. She developed her main messages, thought about the worst questions she could possibly face and practiced her responses.

When the interview began, Susan stayed on message. Thompson tried to throw her off, but Susan wouldn't budge. Thompson pushed and prodded, trying to get Susan to say something ? anything ? more controversial. She wouldn't.

That's when Ms. Thompson employed the old journalistic trick of trying to intimidate her subject. In middle of the interview, Ms. Thompson asked the cameraman to stop recording, scolded Susan for not answering her questions, and asked for a five minute break.

And my sources tell me that this is not the first time Ms. Thompson has used this tactic ? she's used it before with at least one other interviewee from a different organization.

An inexperienced spokesperson would have been flustered. He or she would have returned from the break with something different to say. Not Susan. She knew that Dateline NBC was simply a conduit to a larger audience and that she had full control of her own words.

It worked. When the interview aired, Susan's quotes were right on message. By sticking to her messages and consistently repeating her most important points, she ensured that Dateline's millions of viewers heard the most important things she had to say.


The trainees I work with often wonder if they wouldn't have more credibility if they acknowledged a few of their own weaknesses during an interview, instead of being perfectly on message. Doing so is occasionally appropriate, but here's why it's dangerous:

1. The answer you give which points out your own shortcomings will be the one that is used. Your other answers ? including your positive points ? will be edited out.

2. It is not your job to be your own critic ? that is the job of the reporter and your opponents quoted in the piece. In order for a truly "balanced" piece, you have to be positive toward yourself ? your opponents will happily point out your imperfections for you.


I'd like to raise three cautions with this approach. First, frustrated reporters will occasionally edit together clips of the guest repeating the same answer over and over again and will air it to show the guest's evasiveness. It's a technique that can severely damage a guest's credibility, but is easy to circumvent ? if you develop multiple ways of saying the same thing and support your messages with specific examples.

Second, this approach works well if you're defending an ideology or point of view you truly believe in. But if you or your organization did something wrong, it's not good enough. You'll need to admit your faults, apologize, and articulate your action plan to make it better.

And third, this approach worked because the interview was taped, not live. If the program was live, the audience would have quickly tired of Susan's antics. But since she knew that Dateline NBC tends to use short sound bites instead of longer interviews, she was confident the audience would never see her repetitive messaging technique.


In the end, both women performed their jobs admirably. Ms. Thompson led a tough journalistic investigation, exposing an industry that probably deserved the scrutiny. And, as for Susan? She represented her organization's point of view perfectly.

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.

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