What can you do when a press interview starts to go off the rails? An anonymous hack with PR experience explains how to turn it around.
It’s every PR’s worst nightmare. You’ve put the calls in, you’ve briefed the boss on the lines to take, and you’ve even made sure the troublesome hack has got a decent cup of coffee. But then things start to go wrong. The boss fluffs his lines. The journalist, like a hound on the scent of a country fox, won’t let go of a controversial topic. The carefully crafted media strategy you’ve been honing for weeks is going up in smoke in front of your very eyes.
So how do you get it back on track, without the journalist writing the dreaded words “at this point, the embattled CEO’s adviser stepped in to ask that we move on to another topic”? After all, you never want to be the story.
There are plenty of apocryphal tales doing the rounds. There’s the showbiz agent who deliberately spilt a cup of coffee over himself, for example. A senior entertainment journalist tells the story of a PR snatching the Dictaphone off the table. As for me, when I worked with one high-level political figure, I kept the parliamentary bomb-search dog on standby outside, just in case I needed to distract the dog-mad hack. Luckily all went well and Rover wasn’t required.
On a more prosaic level, the easiest way to steer a conversation towards more fertile ground is to remember why the journalist is there: news. There’s nothing like an exclusive, and that’s usually what you’re trying to deliver – be it a new strategy, a new policy or a new whatever.
A good technique is a polite, gentle nudge: “I’m just conscious of time, and I want to make sure you get the most out of this, so do you (the boss) want to expand a bit on (the thing you want to talk about)?” Most hacks will accept the quid pro quo; they might not win a Pulitzer for tearing a strip off a corporate CEO this time around, but they’ll go back with enough fresh meat to keep hungry editors sated.
You can use this news instinct to your advantage too. If your boss has gone off on one, just pretend it’s nothing new. “We’ve covered that ground a lot in the past,” you might say to the journalist. “But our new XYZ? That’s just for you.” If you throw them off the scent, you can often get away with it.
And in more desperate situations? It’s always worth having an anecdote to hand. Journalists love a bit of colour, so you can always jump in with a “you know, this reminds me of…” and let your boss take it away. Suddenly it’s a jolly chat about a memorable incident rather than the Spanish Inquisition.
Of course, the best way to avoid disaster is to establish trust between you and the journalist. Set the ground rules, grant the access and know each other well enough that you both get what you want out of it.
And if you know that a tricky question will come up? Just make sure you brief your client with a solid bat-away answer and remind them of the number-one rule: when you’re in a hole, don’t start digging.
A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q4 2019.