Skip to main content
This ACM guest blogpost is from international communications-boosting professional speaker and media trainer, Michael Dodd. He’s the author of “Great Answers To Tough Questions At Work” published by Wiley which has been given “Management Gold” endorsement from the Chartered Management Institute after being shortlisted for the Management Book Of The Year Award.

Media Marketing

Avoiding Tough Media Questions Has Consequences

Getting mainstream media exposure for your brand can be a great thing for marketers to do.

But when there’s an issue running in the media which is tarnishing the reputation of your brand it can be highly damaging.

My general advice to clients when the media are running news stories which put your brand in a bad light – fairly or unfairly – is that you need to engage with journalists on the matter.

This often necessitates doing media interviews where the quality of your answers to tough media questions is crucial.

Seeking to avoid answering media questions – framed in the public interest – has serious consequences.

This is all the more so if the avoidance actually takes place in the media spotlight while the cameras are rolling.

So being able to either give great answers to tough media questions yourself – or work with others in your company to craft and deliver those answers to defend the brand where it’s justified and justifiable – is imperative.

The really good news is that being able to give great answers is a learnable and improvable skill.

Alas, there many examples of people in the media spotlight who have not taken advantage of the opportunity to improve their responses before they’re under pressure from journalists.

They and their organisation typically end up paying a big price.

How A Bad Media Interview Can Shred A Reputation

One of the more infamous examples in recent times of adverse consequences resulting from avoiding a question involved one of Britain’s biggest housebuilding firms, Persimmon.

The now ex-boss of Persimmon significantly tarnished the company’s reputation when refusing to properly answer a question that he wasn’t ready for.

Before being removed as Persimmon’s Chief Executive Officer, Jeff Fairburn was the biggest beneficiary of a highly contentious executive bonus scheme.

There was an uproar when it was revealed that a result of the scheme – which was linked to the Persimmon share price and was completely uncapped – was that Mr Fairburn’s bonus amounted to £75-million.

This was – not surprisingly – labelled “excessive” by shareholders and criticised by charities, politicians and Persimmon customers.

Now it’s probably fair to assume that a typically community-minded member of The Academy of Chief Marketers might strongly believe that those at the top should set a better example than Mr Fairburn.

But rather than concentrate on the dubious morality of the bonus, let’s focus what happened to Mr Fairburn from a media perspective – and what can happen to anybody who tries to duck a tough media question on a legitimate subject.

Be Ready For Surprises Questions

After the initial storm over the record bonus, the issue gradually disappeared from the media spotlight.

But then, six months later, something happened that took Mr Fairburn by surprise – when he, and his communications and marketing team members, should have been fully prepared for it.

Mr Fairburn was taking part in a BBC interview at the opening of a brick factory.

During the interview, the well-researched and persistent BBC reporter asked about the bonus.

Mr Fairburn refused to answer.

He looked deeply uncomfortable.

And he walked out of the interview.

Then he declared that raising the topic was “most unfortunate”.

It certainly was – for him.

Mr Fairburn performed in a way that reignited interest in the bonus story by other news outlets.

The result was that Mr Fairburn was asked to leave his post by the company chairman and, amidst renewed public uproar, he had no choice other than to do so. “It is clear now in the best interests of Persimmon that I should step down,” were his parting words in the press release.

What’s REALLY significant is that Mr Fairburn’s removal wasn’t an immediate consequence of his unwise acceptance of the £75-million bonus.

It was his refusal to properly answer questions about it six months later that triggered his departure!

Learning From The Housing Boss’s Mistake

So, the learning points for all with a brand to protect include:

1. Refusing to answer questions about a big issue won’t make it disappear

2. When there are major questions for your company or brand to tackle, you need to work out your approach in advance so that your company is well-positioned to give a proper response

3. If you can’t or won’t talk about something, then at the start of your response you need to give an excellent reason WHY you can’t or won’t discuss it

4. Once you’ve given a credible reason for not answering, go on to highlight the most useful thing you’re in a position to say on the topic that conveys a powerful helpful message to the audience

5. Giving great answers is enhanced by planning, preparation and practice.

Workshops and one-to-one sessions on “Great Answers To Tough Media Questions” equip participants with the golden formulae for dealing with all kinds of challenging media situations.

In the sessions, you’re able to focus on your toughest questions that could be thrown at you or someone else in your company during a media storm.

You come away with a framework for answering tough questions and an understanding of how to apply it to any situation.

During the session, we work on the content of what you say, the way you structure your replies and the way you look and sound and feel as you deliver them.

Participants find it comforting to know there’s a way they can deal with tough questions that hits the win-win-win point between the answerer, the questioner and any wider audience such as TV viewers and radio listeners.

Michael will be speaking at one of our Academy of Chief Marketer meetings later this year,

Enhancing Your Confidence As You Answer

Further good news is that acquiring the ability to deploy the golden formulae is a confidence-enhancing experience.

It tends to feel evermore confidence-enhancing as you move towards to a higher level of mastery.

And it’s certainly confidence-enhancing as journalists ring your phone or knock at your door when you know in advance the kind of thing to say and how to say it.