3 mistakes you should never make in a media interview

Written by Tim McLarty

March 30, 2020

To say these are turbulent times would be a gross understatement.  Today we’re all facing generational challenges that are trying the very fibre of our being; not just in hospital settings around the globe, but in corporate cubicles, work-from-home offices, and shuttered retail environments.  A friend of mine assists on process and policy at one of the major banks and has worked no less than 17 hours a day since the Covid-19 tragedy began.  Banks continue to take the heat from frustrated and confused consumers who don’t know where to direct their anger.  We are all in this together.  But some are faring much better than others.  

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Take for example, Senior World Health Organization adviser, Dr. Bruce Aylward.  He agreed to take part in a media interview with journalist Yvonne Lau of Hong Kong World City News.  The journalist asked him if the W.H.O. would reconsider inviting Taiwan to be part of the W.H.O. conversations, clearly a hot button issue. He delayed and pretended to not hear the question. She rephrased the question and asked about Taiwan’s efforts to thwart the Covid-19 virus.  His response was less than impressive. See the interaction here

I worked in over a dozen radio stations over my broadcast career and saw a lot of back and forth power struggles between the interviewer and the subject.  But in this instance, Dr.Aylward performed so poorly it was almost comical.

3 Mistakes you should never make in a media interview.

1. Do not underestimate the journalist conducting the interview. 

You have to remember, the journalist likely has thousands of interviews under his/her belt, a journalism degree and a living that relies on discovery and moving a topic forward. The journalist may lead the interviewer if she/he has some evidence on an issue and is simply looking for corroborative information to back it up.  If you, the subject do not want to answer that question, you should never, ever pretend you didn’t hear the question.   Because, low and behold, the journalist will ask it again.  And then she will change the wording slightly and ask it again, until she either receives some sort of answer, or is on record as saying to the subject, “It appears you do not want to answer this question, so we’ll move on.”  This in itself is a failure on the part of the subject, but a better alternative to the interrogative car-crash that was this interview. 

2.  Do not stone-wall. If you don’t wish to answer a question, reshape the conversation.  Give the journalist something to work with.  Have some facts, some information that is not commonly known.  This is considered a story and it will allow the journalist to take her foot off the gas on the question you don’t want to answer.  She ultimately needs a story.  Otherwise the discourse will be driven completely by the journalist and it may go into a direction you’re not comfortable answering.  Ultimately, the truth will set you free. But you need to be true to yourself and your agenda and reason for agreeing to the interview. Otherwise it has little value or can conceivably do more harm than good.

Let’s say you are Dr. Aylward, and you want to shed a light on positive aspects of the W.H.O’s battle against Covid-19. Immediately push the conversion there and focus on areas that need funding or attention.  Clearly Dr. Aylward felt that bringing Hong Kong into the conversation would create a negative political climate that could impact Chinese funding or participation in the world effort.  But pretending not to hear the question and then hanging up when the journalist was simply doing her job resulted in  turning a positive into a major negative.  To avoid committing the organization simply required Dr. Aylward to say “My understanding is this has been discussed for a while but I’m not sure where this is at at this time.” If the journalist asked again, the better response would have been to remind viewers/listeners that Taiwan had made invaluable contributions to the current crisis and their further participation I’m sure is being looked at. This gives the journalist something quotable, even if not definitive.

3.  Do not go into an interview without an agenda. When this happens, you leave yourself wide open to gaffs and planting seeds that will grow a negative story into something major that serves no purpose. Decide early on what you want to achieve with this interview.

a) Raise the positive profile of yourself?

b) Raise the profile of the World Health Organization and  bring groups together towards a solution, cure or containment strategy.

c) Create awareness for funding or supply deficiencies?

It’s understood the W.H.O. is a highly political organization. But hanging up on a journalist and dodging questions as though she had asked something highly inappropriate was a major debacle of Trumpian standards. But I’m sure the myriad of memes, retweets, shares and articles, just like this one,  have already made this abundantly clear.    

Tim McLarty is a Toronto based media creator and consultant. His background includes 17 years in broadcasting, 9 years as a professor at Humber College and 22 years as Creative Director and President at media boutique, Ontrack Communications.

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Tim McLarty - Ontrack Communications Inc.

About the author

Tim McLarty is creative director at Ontrack Communications in Toronto. He’s a podcaster, and his background includes 9 years as professor of media creation at Humber College and 17 years as a broadcaster across Canada.  Ontrack is a media studio creating video, motion graphics, audio and podcast content.  In his spare time he makes short films and travels to any country that will have him.