MEDIA TACTICS: SCORING ON DEFENSE - You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar

You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar (1995)

Chapter 15. MEDIA TACTICS: SCORING ON DEFENSE

Basketball and football coaches have a saying: “You can’t score on defense—get the ball.”

With the media, make no mistake. You are always on defense, but if you do it right, you can occasionally score.

First recognize that the media has nothing to lose by interviewing you. On the other hand, you or those you represent could lose.

How, then, can you prepare yourself to deal with the news media? What are the strategies and techniques for handling journalists? I will summarize the highlights of what we tell our clients. To begin with, don’t ever take a phone call from a reporter you don’t know. First, tell the reporter, or have your secretary tell him, that you’ll get back to him. You need time to check out who the reporter is, what he could possibly want, and why he might want it. You need to think and compose yourself. Mistakes are made when people rush into media interviews without really analyzing the intent of the reporter. What the reporter tells you may or may not be totally true. I’ve met few reporters who will actually lie, but many who have hidden agendas.

Even Laurence A. Tisch, president and chief executive officer of CBS Inc., admitted to The Wall Street Journal on March 20, 1987, that negative reporting by the news media about his budget and staff cutbacks had “broken” his company’s image. “I’ve lost a certain confidence in the press, I must say,” Tisch said in a tape-recorded interview. “I won’t be as ready just to talk to people over the telephone.”

One executive was sent to me after he had embarrassed his company by giving a candid interview to a reporter who identified himself as being with The New York Times. My client naively assumed the reporter was legitimate, and he took the call without verifying the caller’s credentials. The “reporter” turned out to be a free-lancer calling from a pay phone. The article, which misquoted the client and maligned the company, ended up in an underground scandal sheet. Pieces of the article later surfaced in establishment publications.

Once you’ve checked the reporter out, you’ll find that most of the time, he has no ill intent: He simply wants information. He’s been assigned a story. If you cooperate and give the reporter facts which are interesting enough to be quoted, your side of the story may at least be heard. It may not appear with the background and explanation you’d ideally want, but you’ll probably fare better than you would by not responding.

Never go into a media interview unprepared. Never try to “wing it.” Instead, discuss the interview in advance with a public relations professional, a media consultant, or other trusted counsel. If you can, review prior newsclips or program tapes to get a feel for the reporter’s point of view. Anticipate likely questions—think through your replies. Reverse roles: If you were the journalist or the audience for the story, what questions or issues would you want addressed? (Be objective and tough on yourself.) Consider: Who is my audience? What do I want my audience to remember (or do) as a result of what I say? Why am I being interviewed (purpose) and why should my audience listen to me? (Address their concerns and bear in mind that the public viewpoint may differ from the corporate perspective.) How will I organize and deliver my remarks?

Think it through and invest sufficient time. There is no substitute for thorough preparation and rehearsal.

Have an agenda of three major points you want to discuss in the interview, and plan to work those points in sometime during your conversation with the reporter. The most common mistake made by people who are interviewed is that they wait for the reporter to ask questions which will trigger their agenda points. That may never happen. Jon once trained a dermatologist who was preparing for a media tour to discuss a new skin product. In one of the practice interviews, Jon sidetracked her into focusing for five minutes on how overexposure to the sun can damage the skin. She didn’t once mention the name of the new product—although it was related to sun and skin problems—and suddenly her “time was up.” When you’re interviewed by a reporter, you shouldn’t just be a backboard for his or her questions. You should gently take enough control, at times, to get your points across.

WHO SETS THE AGENDA?

Remember, the medium determines the message. Print interviews allow you time to explain. But radio and TV interviews require “headline” answers—bulleted “highlights” delivered in a few short, vivid sentences. The average radio or TV quote by an individual is edited down to fifteen or twenty seconds—about the time you would need to read this paragraph aloud.

A media interview is give-and-take. It can’t run along parallel tracks that never meet.

Reporters and the people they interview become at odds when either party tries to follow only his own agenda and refuses to address the other person’s needs.

Ask yourself: How can I build a bridge from the reporter’s agenda to my own agenda? You can do this successfully if your agenda consists of points made interesting and newsworthy with the support of facts, illustrations, and examples. Be responsive to the journalist’s questions, but don’t give away the store. You are not obliged to reveal confidential information. However, don’t dismiss a question by saying, “No comment.” If you must withhold information, explain in a nice way that the facts are proprietary. Then explain why (for example, “Our competitors would love to know that—which is why I can’t elaborate”). Next, offer alternative information, if appropriate. Above all, in your attitude, avoid giving the impression that you are stonewalling.

Q = A + 1 is a formula my associate, Jon Kraushar, learned from a friend, human resources consultant Don Teff. When asked a question (Q), reply briefly and directly with an answer (A). Then, if it will help, add a point or points (+ 1), preferably from your agenda. For example, one of my clients, a congressman, was asked by a reporter, “You were pressured by the big chemical companies not to introduce that legislation, weren’t you?” The congressman answered, “I met with everyone involved in the issue, including the environmentalists, the consumer groups, and the companies.” Then he added (+ 1), “Based on these discussions, all the parties agreed that the industry would set new standards rather than Congress passing a law.”

Accept the fact that reporters are, first and foremost, after a story, although not necessarily the story you want to give them. Do not be hostile or condescending toward a reporter. Don’t threaten to withdraw advertising because a story upsets you. You can sometimes head off problems with a story before it is published by asking a reporter if you can review his text to insure accuracy of your quotes and facts about the company. Some journalists allow you to check substance but will become angry if you request changes in writing style. That offends the reporter’s pride and ego. You can request a prior story review, but if the reporter objects, you’re probably better off not pushing the issue. There are two principles here: (1) If you don’t ask, you can’t get, but (2) after you’ve asked, be sensitive to how far you can go.

Hostility is a no-win strategy with the press—they have the last word. But friendliness is no guarantee of good coverage either. You won’t lose points by being nice. But remember, being friendly with a reporter does not make the reporter “your friend.”

On radio and TV, your air of decisiveness (style/delivery) is as important as your substance (content/words). Be friendly, be brief, be direct, and be positive.

Unless you’re being interviewed for highly technical journals, avoid jargon. Speak plainly. Use examples and illustrations that enable the average person to understand you. Use laymen’s terms.

PLAIN SPEAKING

The late business writer Bill Hunter once compiled some of the more outrageous double-talk and euphemisms used in business. These are real examples: One company avoided the word “loss” in its annual report by referring to “net profits revenue deficiency.” You’d think a papermaking company got its product from trees, but the term it used was “reforestation unit.” When the money in some banks doesn’t grow on reforestation units, it’s referred to as “nonperforming loans.” Aren’t those the kind that aren’t repaid? Today, you don’t get fired from a job—you’re “outplaced.” Funds aren’t stolen from companies—they’re “misappropriated.” Even lies have become “disinformation.”17 The best advice on jargon? Downscale it. Disinvest in it. Outplace it.

A SEARCH-AND-DESTROY MISSION

Also, remember to stay composed—at all times. A reporter may provoke you with the hope that you will blow up and leak sensitive information or blurt out a controversial quote. Journalistic techniques to unveil colorful information include badgering you and asking you the same basic question over and over. Don’t take these strategies personally! (It’s the reporter’s job.) Occasionally, you’ll run into a reporter who appears to be on a search-and-destroy mission. Once the interview has started, there is little you can do except fasten your seat belt, stay calm, smile, and give very short answers.

Always be aware, especially on TV, of where the audience’s sympathy lies. If a reporter is bullying you, the viewers at home may start to root for you. The audience, not the reporter, is your constituency. Reporters believe they serve the public. So, often in their style and manner, they feel that anything is fair. Remember, you bring a different standard of fairness to the interview, and the audience may bring an altogether different, third standard of fairness. Actually, the audience has a pretty good idea of what is fair. The audience often will be on your side in an interview with the press if you can’t escalate your emotions to hostility. Take ABC-TV’s Sam Donaldson, for instance. He does not answer to anyone except the network. He has nothing to lose by being a little hostile. He goads you to the point of exasperation with his hectoring. He wants you to lose your temper and say something extreme so he’ll get his headline. When you hear a pickup in the reporter’s tone and volume and rhythm of interrogation, your response should generally be friendlier, quieter, and slower. That cues the audience that you’re the reasonable party and the reporter is just trying to provoke you. Exercise the law of inverse proportions. The more inflammatory the journalist, the cooler you should be.

Donaldson became the personification of the tough reporter by hounding President Reagan. The president once had a chance to even the score with Donaldson—in his usual, kidding way—when he addressed the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association in April of 1986. The president said, “At my last press conference I thought that gimmick of wearing a red dress to get my attention went a little too far. Nice try, Sam.” The press roared with laughter.

CBS anchorman Dan Rather uses an analogy to describe what he sees as the appropriate relationship between the news media and those they interview. He says that journalists shouldn’t be expected to act like friendly lapdogs, rolling over for news sources, accepting information exactly as sources provide it without question. Nor, says Rather, should journalists be killer-instinct attack dogs, indiscriminately going for the throats of people they pursue on stories and trying to destroy those they interview, professionally and personally. The ideal role of the journalist, according to Rather, is the watchdog—alert, wary, sniffing out trespassers, and protective of the public interest.

I agree with Rather in principle. However, it’s important to note that one person’s watchdog (alertness) is another person’s attack dog (assault).

I’ve already discussed executives or companies who stonewall the press. But just as potentially destructive are journalists who “stone” the people they interview, just for the confrontational drama the clash provides. Many media interviews are like bullfights. The matador (the journalist) tries to control the ring, and he certainly holds the ultimate weapons (when his reportage is made public). Nonetheless, it is possible for the bull (you) to win occasionally—or at least not get killed.

GOLDEN RULES

One of the most dramatic examples of this happened in 1982, when Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” called the Adolph Coors Company in Golden, Colorado, to do an interview with owners Joe and Bill Coors. Coors had been accused of union busting and discriminatory practices. At first, Joe and Bill Coors were reluctant to do the interview. But after meeting with their public relations people, they decided to open the doors and let “60 Minutes” in. The owners then spent a good deal of time and money preparing for the “60 Minutes” interview. They felt the facts were on their side and they wanted an opportunity to present those facts to the American people. In essence, they did everything we talked about in this chapter, including rehearsing the actual interview with the most likely questions that Wallace would ask.

By the time the session actually took place, the Coors brothers were calm, relaxed, and ready. Not only were they able to answer Mike Wallace’s questions, but they got several of their own positive points into the interview as well. The “60 Minutes” segment which eventually aired turned out to be a major public relations boost for Coors. It was so strongly favorable that Coors bought the noncommercial rights to the “60 Minutes” segment for forty thousand dollars and made more than four hundred copies to send to Coors distributors and local service clubs all over America. This never could have happened if Coors didn’t have a strong case. But the important element here is that the owners took it seriously, did what they had to do, and probably were better prepared for the actual interview than the “60 Minutes” crew.

REPOSITIONING

In many press interviews, reporters will use loaded words in a question. Don’t legitimize these words by repeating them in the answer. Recast language or issues into factual terms. In effect, you reposition the negative premise of the question.

For example, if a reporter characterizes your actions as “corrupt, irresponsible, malicious, and injurious to the public welfare,” you should not say, “We are not corrupt, irresponsible, malicious, and injurious to the public welfare.” All you’re doing then is repeating the charges, which will reinforce and help people remember the words of indictment even more. Instead, you might say, “We’ve answered our critics by …” and then describe positive, concrete actions you’ve taken.

Whenever there’s a loaded question like that, you might also smile and point out that the question is loaded by saying, “Well, obviously, you have a strong opinion against us in this, and let me try to give you the facts.” And then go into your litany.

Our advice to both our political and business clients is to develop three levels or “tiers” of an answer to the most nettlesome questions they could be asked by a reporter. The first level, tier A, is a one- or two-sentence summary of your position. If a reporter wants elaboration, you are ready with tier B, a concrete example to back up that summary, plus a little more detail. Most reporters won’t need more than two levels to an answer, but if need be, you should be ready with tier C, a further elaboration using another supporting statement.

If a reporter wants to push you past C, loop back to your tier A reply. This system keeps you solidly on your position, regardless of how aggressively a reporter wants to push you to an indiscreet reply. Here’s a hypothetical example:

REPORTER:

(to company chairman) Your salary and bonus are outrageous and exorbitant, especially compared to what your employees are paid.

CHAIRMAN:

(tier A reply) My pay is in line with the compensation for the chairmen of similar-sized and similar-performing companies. As you know, I don’t set my compensation. It’s set by a group of professionals who look at many factors.

REPORTER:

But it’s like extorting the shareholders. I mean, a million dollars a year. And your company lost money last year.

CHAIRMAN:

(tier B reply) My compensation is based on longer-term rates of return than one year. Our average rate of return on common stock during my five years as chairman is 22 percent, double the five-year average for the industry.

REPORTER:

But don’t you think you’re still overpaid?

CHAIRMAN:

(tier C reply) I’m paid based on my long-term ability to manage the company and the challenges of the job. For example, the right fielder for the Angels is paid $1.4 million a year. You’re compensated according to the standards and practices of your business.

REPORTER:

But you haven’t answered my question. Aren’t you overpaid?

CHAIRMAN:

(looping back to tier A, smiling) Well, as I said before, it’s what chairmen of similar-sized and similar-performing companies earn.

REPORTER:

I still think it’s too much.… (pause)

CHAIRMAN:

(silence—don’t get sucked in)

A RULE OF THUMB

As you can extrapolate from this example, it’s also a good rule of thumb that the tougher the questions, the shorter your answers should be. Many people foul themselves up in interviews by giving rambling replies. Either they end up sounding as though they’re “protesting too much” or they say something inaccurate or indiscreet in an attempt to be responsive to the premise of the question.

The premises of questions from journalists are sometimes objectionable themselves—or hypothetical. You have no obligation to legitimize a hypothetical or false premise.

The savvy former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Kenneth Adelman, once appeared on a Sunday morning national news program. A reporter asked Adelman if the Soviet Union might be using Cuba at that very moment to build up arms supplies and then threaten the East Coast of the United States. Adelman said, “No.” That’s all. The reporter didn’t know what to do after that. There was silence. Silence is an enemy on television, a medium where advertisers can pay up to $950,000 for a minute of airtime. So the reporter scrambled around for his next question.

Whether it’s a TV, radio, or print interview, say what you have to say, then stop. It’s the reporter’s problem to come up with the next question. Whenever you can, frame your answers in the context of “the public interest,” which reporters believe they protect and represent. For example, rather than focusing on the return on investment of a new product—as you might at a board of directors meeting—focus with a reporter on the ways the new product will save some consumers time or money or otherwise improve their lives. Answer one question at a time. If you are unsure of the answer, admit it candidly. Say what you can, but don’t fudge. And don’t lie. It will come back to haunt you.

Match your facial expression to the seriousness of the message. Use gestures—don’t be a stiff. Look your interviewer in the eye. Shifty eyes signal discomfort or guilt.

DRESS

On TV or in public, don’t let your wardrobe overwhelm your words. What you have to say is more important than what you’re wearing. In general, dress conservatively—nothing gaudy or loud, whether it be a suit, makeup for women, or accessories ranging from ties to jewelry. If you’re in doubt, here are some rules of thumb. Whether you’re wearing a two- or three-piece outfit (vests tend to bunch up when you sit, especially if you’re overweight), only one item should be patterned and the pattern should be subtle. The other items should be solid shades, neither too dark nor too light. TV cameras are supposed to be able to adjust to extreme darks and lights, but they can’t adjust completely. For example, a black person dressed all in black against a dark background will practically disappear on screen. Same for a white person dressed in white against a light background. The solution is to wear navy blue, grey, and other dark (but not funereal black) suits. Shirts should be lighter than suits, but neither solid black nor stark white. The pattern you choose to wear should be muted, because bold patterns create a “bleeding,” “smudgy,” or “shimmering eel” effect on TV. The pattern “trails” just behind when the wearer turns or moves. The TV’s lines of resolution just can’t keep up with a bold, moving pattern. The same rule of “less is more” applies to shoes, jewelry, and various adornments. Stay away from boots, heavy makeup, or jangling jewelry, unless you’re a gypsy fortune-teller. On TV, men will need some makeup to cut the glare of the bright lights or to cover facial blemishes. The same for women. Men may need light makeup to soften a heavy beard or to hold down the glare from a bald head. Too much makeup is a disaster. The rule is, you should not see makeup. Ask to see a close-up shot of yourself on the studio or control room monitor. If you see patches or streaks of makeup, refuse to go on until it’s fixed. But be persistent in a nice way.

CROWD CONTROL

In the confusion of informal hallway interviews—where there are as many as ten or twelve reporters pressing around you, pushing microphones toward you, and shouting questions—you can still bear down on the central issue, as developed for your TV appearances, if you are well prepared. You can also try to set the pace. If the questions are flying thick and fast and a commotion is occurring, you can usually quiet the reporters by opening your mouth and uttering a few words, such as “Let me just say …” The reporters will hush in order to hear your words. Once the quiet sets in, you can deliver your prepared pitch. When you pause, the questions will begin again.

If you’re besieged by a flock of reporters (let’s say on the steps of a court building), try to control the situation by selecting a single question to which you will respond. Look at the reporter who asked the question. Ignore the cameras and microphones surrounding you and speak to the questioner. Try to come in “under” the tone and volume of the questioner, speaking more calmly. If you shout excitedly, the TV viewer may decide that you sound defensive and are therefore guilty.

One of the techniques that I have occasionally advised clients to use is that if a reporter asks a really tough question, respond with an equally tough question. Here’s a hypothetical example. Somebody asks, “Why did you vote against the environment?” You might reply, “Are you talking about House bill #135 that was part of the amendment to the EPA Superfund bill, or are you talking about the Baxter-Sawyer bill, which is in the conference committee now and which would allow a special fund to be set up by 1990 to handle toxic waste cleanup at sites determined to be a hazard by the EPA and substantiated by community standards?” The reporter’s eyes will tell you quickly if he knows what he’s doing or if he’ll retreat and leave you alone. In many cases, he’s just trying to provoke you. If his eyes roll around like pinballs, his knowledge of the issue is probably a mile wide and an inch deep. This technique can buy you time. Ask the question in a very friendly, good-natured way. You don’t have to do it with hostility. You just say, “I need to clarify the point before I answer.”

If you’re able to smile at a time like this, make sure it’s a natural one. If smiling comes hard, concentrate on listening to your interrogators, composing your sentence structure, and choosing specific words for your responses.

A TV DUEL

On a television program in the early 1970s, I witnessed one of the worst examples of someone who was totally unaware of the audience’s sympathy and of the dynamics of hostility. In this case, it was a debate on a pollution issue. On one side was a puffed-up, pompous corporate executive. On the other side was a long-haired, earnest, but somewhat scruffy consumer advocate. The typecasting was classic TV: the “robber baron” versus the “hippie.” The executive and the consumer activist began arguing, and the moderator went back and forth. Finally, the activist raised his voice to the corporate executive and said, “It’s because of people like you that we can’t breathe.” The executive got angry, exasperated, and red in the face. Without thinking, he shouted back, “Young man, there are more important things than breathing!” A hush came over the set and everyone looked stunned, especially the executive. He realized he’d been provoked into making a ridiculous and extreme statement, absurd to everyone.

The news media often try to move you to extreme positions. They try to show both sides of issues as if all issues had only two sides. TV is a time medium. Black and white issues make for clear-cut controversy. The time restrictions and space limitations (plus the short attention span of the audience) make simplification the imperative of the media. They label you as being on the right or the wrong side, liberal or conservative, up or down. They try to move you with their questioning to the most extreme possible position so that they can get a “good” quote. If you ever dare agree with your opponent, the producers will not invite you back because you failed to provide the necessary “drama” of controversy. Of course, they won’t say that. They’ll just throw away your phone number.

In some cases, a reporter might hold his microphone under your chin too long, for a few extra “beats” after you have finished. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that your statement is complete, and he expects you to continue. If the microphone lingers and the camera keeps rolling, simply restate your main theme. Sum it up. Be a stuck record. It’s better to repeat than to dilute your story with what could be viewed as an indecisive fade-out. The tape editor at the studio will tighten the segment by trimming the repetitious dialogue. The same principle holds true in a print interview. Don’t give in to pressure to go beyond the bounds of your position.

When you’re appearing on TV, don’t look around for the monitor, the camera crew, or other production staff. Let the equipment play to you. Don’t play to the equipment. Don’t worry about finding the right camera to look into. It’s the job of the director and/or camera operator to find you. If the interview is outside of a television studio—in the “field”—and you’re near people you know, don’t look at them. Stay focused on the interviewer, even when listening. Always bear in mind that you may be on, even though you’re not talking.

Also, recognize that any time you are in the presence of a newsperson, the conversation is fair game for the record. Jimmy Carter’s famous confession that he sometimes had lust in his heart for women other than his wife was uttered to a Playboy magazine journalist as he was leaving Carter’s home at the conclusion of the formal interview.

Even Mike Wallace, big-game hunter of the unguarded moment, got caught in this snare. As recounted on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal by TV critic Daniel Henninger in March of 1981, Wallace

was interviewing a banker in San Diego about an alleged home-improvement fraud involving mainly blacks and Hispanics, who supposedly had signed contracts they couldn’t understand, which eventually led to foreclosures on their home mortgages.

The bank hired a film crew of its own to record the interview with Mr. Wallace. The bank’s crew apparently left its recorder running during a break in the CBS interview, and the tape has Mr. Wallace saying, in reply to a question about why the black and Hispanic customers would have signed their contracts, “They’re probably too busy eating their watermelon and tacos.”

When the Los Angeles Times got wind of this indiscretion and reported it, there was at least a minor uproar from reporters and others about Wallace’s “racially disparaging joke.” Wallace ultimately pleaded “no bias,” admitting that over time he’d privately told jokes about many ethnic groups but that his record “speaks for itself.”

Henninger added, “Needless to say, this has to be the most deliciously lip-smacking bit of irony to pop out of the oven in a long time. Here we have the dogcatcher cornered. The lepidopterist pinned. The preacher in flagrante delicto. This is the fellow who has imputed all manner of crimes against social goodness to a long lineup of businessmen and bureaucrats. From here on out, all future victims of Mr. Wallace can take some small comfort in knowing that although they may stand exposed as goof-offs, thieves, and polluters, he’s the guy who made the crack about the watermelons and tacos.”

I know Mike Wallace, and in my opinion he is absolutely not a bigot. Quite the opposite, he is a champion of human rights, but he’s human like everybody else. And we’ve all been guilty of saying things to friends in what we consider to be a private situation that might be disparaging to certain groups. As a matter of fact, it’s quite normal for reporters and producers to engage in cynical dialogue. Of course, most executives feel—and correctly so—that if it had been them, or if it had been a politician who made that crack, it would have been news for two weeks and possibly could have ended a person’s career. Some reporters did report Mike Wallace’s comments, but it was not pursued and, therefore, was quickly forgotten.

I’ve had clients ask me if they should go on “60 Minutes.” I usually tell them that if they are near retirement, have a golden parachute, and wish to go out in a blaze of glory, that is probably a good way to do it. Otherwise I don’t advise them to do TV programs that are extensively edited. There are too many techniques that they are unaware of. The truth, as I said before, is that they will be interviewed for two hours and the network will use their most controversial eighteen seconds. Those seconds could be remarks out of context or could be the one moment they lose their cool. The primary goal of a program like this is to get ratings.

Nonetheless, I was once interviewed by “60 Minutes.” I consented to the interview because I know the tricks and guerrilla tactics of journalists. I have worked in news. The person interviewing me either was trying to relax me or thought he’d get me to open up in some way in an unguarded moment. He ordered his crew to take a break. But I noticed that, while the crew locked their recording gear in place and drifted away, the camera lenses were uncapped and pointed at me. I heard the faint whir of the camera motor and I knew it was still on. The trick didn’t work, so they officially continued the interview.

If executives want to do the “Today Show” or “Good Morning America” or the “CBS Morning Program,” which are live or live on tape, they have a fair shot at saying what they want to say and being sure that it remains intact. If they do an extensively edited show, they are taking their chances.

When speaking to the press, you have to get used to repeating your story to different reporters while maintaining your energy and freshness. Some journalists (print or broadcast) want to isolate you for a one-on-one interview. Or you may give a series of interviews on the same subject over a period of hours or days. The result is that you may talk about the same subject so many times that you’ll be tempted to say something new or different—if only to avoid boring yourself. Don’t confuse the need for repetition with the need to revise. As far as every new interviewer (or audience) is concerned, you are presenting to them for the first time. Struggle against the tedium and stay with your agenda—as long as it works.

I get a lot of heat sometimes for training people to meet the press. Once I was speaking at a journalism-school seminar, and one of the young people stood up and accused me of doing something immoral by teaching people how to answer questions from the press. It was as if I were somehow advising them not to tell the truth.

And I said, “We always advise our clients to tell the truth. But the thing that disturbs me most is that you are here in journalism school learning how to ask the questions, yet you would deny a person the right to learn how to answer those questions. Remember, this is America. What’s fair for one is fair for the other.”

That ended the conversation.

YOUR BILL OF RIGHTS

Anybody who wants to improve his communication skills has that right. Without training, some very talented and intelligent people would avoid all media situations because they fear embarrassment. A business executive needs training because the press will selectively edit anything he says. It may all be the truth, but only part of it may be relevant. Does a business executive have the right not to answer a question? Yes. Does he have the right to choose his words and not use the reporter’s words? Yes. Does he have the right to learn how to rehearse his responses before he walks out there with a bunch of lights and cameras pointed at him? Yes. Does he have the right to understand the technical nature of the interview-editing process? Yes. Does he have the right to know what to wear on camera? Yes. Should he be presumed innocent until proven guilty even if he refuses to answer certain questions? Yes.

Remember, when you go into a press situation, it’s a natural adversarial relationship. The reporter is a professional. Don’t get into the ring if you’re a rank amateur.