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Media Relations With Bob

Each month for the next year, PRAL’s Bob Johannessen will offer tips to help members improve their media relations. From polishing your news conference to keeping unhappy journalists from making you very unhappy, this column will focus on one question with proven strategies and tactics.

In our community, there are several reporters who wait for an official to leave the office or get in their car, demanding a comment on something controversial. How can I prevent this from happening?

The ambush interview is a favorite of television stations, especially during broadcast ratings periods. These interviews are designed to catch the interview target off guard in the hopes they’ll do or say something they might regret while the camera is recording. Whether the tactic is successful depends on how you handle the situation.

You can take steps to lessen your chances of being surprised by an aggressive reporter. As with all successful communications, it starts with preparation.

  • Pay attention to reporter calls to you on a controversial topic. Don’t ignore them as they will continue to call for a response.
  • Consider how you can resolve the reporter’s concerns before they consider ambushing you.
  • Offer a written statement. Suggest a subject matter expert to take the questions. Or schedule an interview at a later time.
  • If you don’t respond, you are increasing your chances for being caught off guard.
  • But, if you get ambushed, you can still control the process by staying calm and talking. Assure the reporter that you cannot respond now, but suggest a later time to talk.
  • If you are followed, keep smiling, but don’t get pressured into an interview now. Remind the reporter of your promise to talk later at the agreed upon time.
  • Use the time to plan with your staff (or communications consultant) and develop a response. 
  • Keep your word. Whether you offer to get the reporter an answer later in the week, or agree to an interview later that day, fulfill your promise. If you don’t, the next ambush will be worse, and the journalist will do everything possible to make you look bad.

The key to surviving an ambush interview is to stay calm, but in control, by setting the terms of the engagement, then following through.


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