I heard a radio interview the other day with one of my favorite book authors, John Feinstein. Feinstein was being interviewed about his latest book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life In The Minor Leagues of Baseball. As the interview started, the radio show host made a statement and then paused. There was a moment of awkward silence before Feinstein asked, “Are you asking me a question?”
Feinstein and the radio show host have been friends for a long time and in fact have done similar interviews for each of the 22 previous books he’s authored. Feinstein’s question back to the host was more about giving his long-time friend a hard time than it was about being a jerk, but it provided a valuable example of how to handle this type of situation.
The exchange brings up an interesting dilemma and one that I see regularly in public relations (PR). What do you do when a reporter says something that isn’t a question but looks at you and is clearly waiting for an answer?
In my part time job/hobby with the Utah Jazz I see a lot of this. After the game during locker room interviews with players, it’s common to hear reporters say things like, that was some game or you guys really hung in there. Neither example is a question but players respond to them as if they are.
In one of my favorite Rick Reilly columns in Sports Illustrated, Reilly raged over this very concept. In his column, Reilly writes about things that bother him about Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls … “For that matter, I’m sick of NBC’s Ahmad Rashad, too. I’ve waited seven years for him to ask Jordan a question, and I’m pretty sure it’s not coming. You guys sure hung in there, Michael, is not a question. That was some game, Michael, is not a question. When is your contract up, Ahmad? is a question. Are you expecting a real question from a man who sleeps at Jordan’s house, drives with him to games and appears in Jordan’s ads? I just hope and pray that when Jordan finally stops, he doesn’t do it too suddenly. Rashad’s nose could break off.”
When these types of non questions come up with my clients, here are four tips I share and advise them to follow when being interviewed.
- Make sure you understand the question. If you didn’t catch the question, understand it, hear it or realize a question was being asked, confirm what the question is. Similar to Feinstein in the example above, don’t be afraid to say, “are you asking me a question?” Or, restate the question and wait for the reporter to confirm the question before answering, “So you’re asking…?” Upon conformation then you can proceed to answer the question. If you think the question was one thing and answer it in a way that makes no sense to the reporter you run the risk of sounding foolish or in giving away information you didn’t want to or shouldn’t have given.
- Take your time answering the question. It’s okay to think about the question and gather your thoughts before responding. Don’ take too much time but you don’t have to respond as soon as the question is asked. A pause of more than a few seconds is to long and may make the reporter think you’re trying to hide something or are about to lie, but a few seconds to gather your thoughts is acceptable.
- Don’t guess. It’s ok to not know all the answers. If you’re unsure or simply do not know the answer be honest. If you can get the information for the reporter, tell them as much but then be sure to follow up with them as promised. Doing this builds confidence and trust. Guessing because you don’t want to admit you don’t know the answer will more often than not just get you into trouble or make you look foolish.
- Don’t answer questions unrelated to the topic. Occasionally during the course of an interview you may have a question come up that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. In these instances I recommend avoiding the temptation to respond. Just because a question is asked doesn’t mean you have to answer it. If it’s a question about a social topic that has nothing to do with your business or the expertise you’re being interviewed about, it will be reported as if you’re opinion on the topic is the view of the company you represent. If that is at odds with customers, partners or clients it can cause serious problems. In most cases, keep your opinions to yourself.
I say this all the time, but it’s important to remember that you’re always on the record. Anything you say can be reported or published. If you don’t’ want something to be known, then don’t say it. If you want to share information there are great ways to do so, but if you’re being interviewed always make sure you know what the question is.