Lately, I’ve been on a television news magazine binge just to see the types of tactics and techniques reporters are using these days to tell their tales. Better technology is clearly making the use of hidden cameras much easier and the ability to capture quality audio from long distances is amazing. To no surprise, the ambush interview remains a favorite for many investigative reporters. We have all watched victims struggle with how to handle a reporter who shows up out of nowhere demanding an interview. I have five simple rules that should make that task much easier.
Rule 1: Kill them with kindness because the cameras are rolling. There is no better television than a defiant culprit. Understand this – if you are the victim of the ambush interview, you are the culprit in the story. No matter what the reporter does or says, be as kind and polite as you can in both words and body language.
Rule 2: You need to escape the ambush by leading the conversation, not following the reporter down every dark alley he/she wants to take you. Here’s how:
First you need to agree that you want to help the reporter. Note that I said “help,” not “agree to the interview.” Those are two totally different things. Then you need to escape the ambush. If you are in your office, invite the reporter in, offer a cup of coffee and get the reporter comfortable. Don’t wait for the reporter; just walk to your office. Trust me – they will follow.
It’s always best if you can separate the reporter from the camera person, but not necessary. If you are away from your office, ask him or her to join you at your office or a nearby coffee shop to discuss the details of the interview. Again, you need to make it sound like you are willing to participate. You are in essence delaying the interview until you can put yourself in a position to control the discussion.
Rule 3: Reporters like to ask questions, not answer them, so become the reporter. Instead of allowing him or her to ask the questions, you need to take over that role by going on the offensive with the following questions:
- Now, I understand you have some questions. Can you give me a sense of what you want to know? Never ever answer the questions. Just keep asking if they have any other areas they want to discuss. Again, this is part of the delay tactic, and the ruse that you will give the interview.
- What information are you using to base your allegations?
- Who else are you talking to about this story? What did they have to say?
- Why am I so important to your story?
- I’m sorry, but when did you say you plan to air this?
At this stage, you need to excuse yourself from the room – say you need to go to the restroom or to cancel your next meeting. You need to disappear for just a few minutes. When you return, immediately ask the following question.
- I’m sorry, but before I can help, would each of you mind writing out your names for me on this piece of paper (hand it to the camera person first)? Also, include contact information so I can reach you if I have some follow-up information. Now, what programs are you with again, and what network is that?
In essence, you are trying to get them to put the camera down. While the camera person is writing out his/her name, you need to deliver the bad news.
Rule 4: Respectfully declining the interview is perhaps the trickiest. As soon as you deliver the news, the camera will start rolling again, so here is the line you need to memorize.
“We just had a 20-minute conversation that made it clear to me you are only interested in telling one side of the story. With that knowledge, I respectfully decline your request for an interview.” If they ask any other questions, simply repeat the same lines verbatim. The reporter will likely go on the offensive and try to bully you into saying something. It’s critical that you say the same phrase every time – any changes to that phrase can open new doors. After about the fourth or fifth question, the reporter is likely to give up. Again, you need to kill him/her with kindness the entire time. You should be respectful, courteous and calm throughout the discussion.
Rule 5: On rare occasion, a reporter or crew may refuse to leave your property without getting the interview. While some like to play hardball, I have found the best way to handle this is again to use kindness and questions to help them see the light. I recommend the following questions.
- Are you aware that you are now standing on private property, and we have the legal right to ask you to leave immediately?
- Do you understand that if you refuse, we will notify local law enforcement and have them handle the matter?
- Do you also understand that this is now being recorded by our security cameras (if you have them) or by a member of our team?
If they still refuse to leave, never ever get physical or attempt to block the camera with your hands. Have someone notify local law enforcement to address the matter. Ask the news team if you can get them some water or coffee while you wait for the police. Offer them a seat in the waiting area, if they would like. Just kill them with kindness.