A Lesson in Effective Media Response from the Campaign Trail

Biden and Trump Lose Opportunities to Control Interviews When They Refuse to Answer Questions        

10/16/2020 – – By now you are probably sick and tired of watching media interviews with Joe Biden and Donald Trump. With the Presidential election less than three weeks away, it’s hard to avoid these encounters. Case in point: Last evening ABC and NBC broadcast dueling “town halls” with the candidates (ABC with Biden, NBC with Trump).

But before you grab for the remote, you may want to pay attention to these high-stakes interviews — even if you’ve already decided who will get your vote — to polish your own media response techniques. As Bronx philosopher Yogi Berra famously said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

While Joe Biden and Donald Trump have little in common when it comes to personality or communication style, they approach media interviews with the same primary objective: Convince voters that they deserve to be President of the United States for then next four years. One challenge to achieving that goal is the interviewer. His or her questions, tone and follow-ups determine in large measure the flow and focus of the interview. But the candidates are far from powerless in this exchange. Depending on the content, length and tone of their answers, interviewees  are equally capable of shaping the dialogue and effecting the outcome of the interview.

The same is true with all media interviews. A corporate executive, headmaster of a school, celebrity, community leader or local politician preparing for an interview should never consider themselves to be passive participants. Their answers are at least as powerful as the journalist’s questions.

Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with many excellent media trainers — pros who improve both the content and technique of media response. In my opinion, no one is better than Virgil Scudder, author of World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees and the Media. A centerpiece of Virgil’s training is what he calls the “Satisfy and Steer” method of question answering. Simply stated, his technique calls for carefully listening to the question, answering it to an acceptable level of satisfaction, then steering the discussion in a direction most helpful to you.

If a CEO is asked why quarterly earnings fell short of analysts’ estimates, he or she might answer, “Revenue from our North American operations missed our projections due to the early termination of leases in our Portland office buildings, which we successfully sold in August. With that behind us, we are looking forward to the grand opening of our newest property in Miami, scheduled to debut fully leased later this month. Let me tell you about the booming Miami market . . .”

Answer the question, then bridge to a new/related topic about which you can be more positive.

Great technique. But it only works if you answer the interviewer’s initial question adequately. Reporters aren’t stupid or passive. That’s why Virgil uses the word “satisfy.” A journalist is not going to let you move (steer) the conversation unless you have first addressed the question asked. Turbulence dominates the conversation if the interviewer has to keep imploring you to “answer the question.”

Here’s where both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have gotten themselves into trouble recently.  

For Joe Biden it’s been his unwillingness to clearly state his position on packing the Supreme Court. He has gone so far as to suggest that the American people don’t deserve to know his stand before the election. Watching his interviews, constructive back and forth (even with friendly reporters) stops dead when he refuses to answer the simple yes-or-no question, “Are you in favor of packing the court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is approved by the Senate?” All attempts by Biden to steer away from this topic fail as reporters keep insisting, “please sir, just answer the question.”

For Donald Trump it has been his non-answer to the simple question, “Were you tested for COVID-19 on the day of your debate with Joe Biden in Cleveland?” Because the President tested positive two days after the event, reporters want to know if he was contagious at the debate. Last night, rather than answer yes or no to this question by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, President Trump said, “I probably did.” Things went downhill from there. Guthrie (not a friendly reporter) thwarted every effort by Trump to move on (steer), resulting in several minutes of uncomfortable waffling.

So, if you find yourself watching an interview with Biden or Trump, look for the effective and ineffective use of the satisfy and steer method of response. Used properly, it empowers the interviewee with the ability to influence the direction of the dialogue. Used improperly, it creates tension and negativity. It’s difficult even for experienced Presidential candidates to recover from such unnecessary confrontations.

The objective of your next media interview may not be to win a Presidential election, but you can exercise your power to steer media interviews in your direction if you first satisfy reporters with clear answers. That will always be a winning media response strategy.

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