When I do media training for associations and other not-for-profits, I’m often asked what people should do if the media asks them a question they really don’t want to answer. Perhaps it’s a question related to a member getting into trouble with the law, or something negative with the industry the group represents.
My answer is always much the same. To begin with, the media has every right to ask those questions and it’s your job to answer them because you speak for the association and perhaps the industry. That’s why properly using a bridge is the most effective way to deal with difficult media questions.
As a matter of fact, using bridges effectively can take you to the top of the media spokesperson class.
To start with, let me describe what a bridge is and how it’s used. It’s normally a short phrase that’s used at the start of an answer (although it can appear later) that leads from a reporter’s question to you getting to your key message. From your perspective, the interview really comes down to you wanting to use your key messages as a big part of your answers. How do you do that if you get a negative question, or in other words, how do you get from the negative question to your key message?
Remember you always need to answer the question, or at least show that you recognize the question. If you’re a City Councilor and a reporter asks a question along the lines of “Aren’t you and the other Council members just being greedy by raising taxes by six percent?” You would be tempted to say “No we’re not being greedy”, which is something you shouldn’t do because the word greedy is a red flag word and one that you want to avoid. Rather than resort to that, use a bridge.
Here's how to use a bridge in a media interview
Reporter: “Aren’t you and the other Council members just being greedy by raising taxes by six percent?”
You: “Some people may look at it that way, but what our Council is focused on is delivering the best services to taxpayers and this increase will allow us to do that.”
What you’ve done is use the words “Some people may look at it that way” to acknowledge the question and then use a bridge to get to your key message. “What your Council is focused on” is the bridge that allows you to get to your key message about delivering the best services possible.
Some of my favourite bridges
I have a few favourite bridges and none is named the Golden Gate Bridge, or London Bridge, but they’re pretty effective:
- What we’re focused on is...
- What’s important to remember is...
- What your readers need to know...
- Our members have told us...
- I don’t know about that, but what I do know is...
- That may be your opinion, however...
Bridges basically allow you to talk about what you want to talk about and not what the reporter wants you to talk about. They’re a valuable tool to learn if you want to control the interview instead of letting it control you.
Here's another way to use a bridge
Bridges can also effectively be used in the middle of a response to allow you to go from one thought you’re making to another. In other words, they can be used the same way, but can connect two things you want to say.
TV Reporter: “Aren’t you and the other Council members just being greedy by raising taxes by six percent?”
You: “Some people may look at it that way, but what our Council is focused on is delivering the best services to taxpayers and this increase will allow us to do that. It will interest your viewers to know that this is the smallest tax increase of any city with a population of our size, so we’re delivering excellent services for less than other municipalities.”
What you have nicely done is tie two key messages together. One of your key messages was to let the reporter know that the reason you opted for a six percent increase was because citizens had told you they didn’t want to reduce services. The second message is meant to show your city isn’t out of line with other municipalities of the same size. By using a bridge you nicely went from one to the other, allowing the reporter to use your full comment, or one of the two.
You need to answer the question
As I mentioned, you do need to answer the question. It’s far too simplistic for me to tell you to use a bridge to get to what you want to talk about because sometimes it’s really difficult to do that.
There are occasions when trying to use a bridge makes you look silly. If there’s a direct question that needs an answer, trying to use a bridge will make it appear that you’re evading the question, which of course you are.
In cases like this, you need to answer the question and then use a bridge to explain yourself.
Let’s use the example of an elected official voting on an issue and then a media story followed that suggested he was in a conflict of interest by voting. The media question to the elected official would be something along the lines of “Why did you vote when it appears it was a conflict of interest?” Your answer would be “It wasn’t a conflict of interest. Before I voted I checked with the city’s legal department and it said there would be no conflict of interest. I also think it's important to note that it’s been five years since I sold all my shares in that company, a year before I was elected.”
In this case, you did answer the question, but then used the bridge “I also think it's important to note” to move to your second piece of information.
I always advise people to not just answer questions with a “yes’ or a “no”, but instead take control of the interview by providing more information (that you’ve already prepared).
A bridge can be the path you need to get you there.
Grant Ainsley is a media trainer and speaker from Edmonton. He’s the author of the book The Honest Spin Doctor and his weekly blog with other media tips can be found on his website. Connect with Grant today on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.