Many a news broadcast features the dramatic sight of the “media mob” in hot pursuit of a politician, chief executive or celebrity just as a crisis is breaking, or the press pack is simply camped outside their home or office – hence this type of ambush interview is known in the trade as the “doorstep”.
As an interview it’s extremely powerful for two key reasons: if handled badly it can hasten the demise of a high-profile figure or company already in a crisis; but equally if handled with aplomb, it can be the first rung on a ladder, which allows that figure or business to climb back to its previous height of good reputation, and perhaps even go beyond it.
But the route to both options is the finest to tread.
Get it wrong and you’re swiftly on the back foot and before you know it, you’re tumbling with devastating speed. Just ask BP’s Tony Hayward.
So here are a few tips to help you find the right route:
For the journalist the ambush interview is an information-gathering exercise like any other interview, but it is also a power struggle – not just between the interviewer and the interviewee, but also between the hacks themselves. Throw in the photographers too and you have a cauldron of urgency and drama.
Fired up by that heat, the media will attempt to gain the upper hand from the start. And the fact their target might have no knowledge of their presence gives them a huge tactical advantage: surprise.
But, take comfort: you, the interviewee, can wrestle power back by laying down some ground rules when the volley of questions starts.
A calm look, followed by a sentence or two along the lines of, “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I’m Mr Smith, managing director of Company XYZ. I’m happy to take a few questions about the incident this morning, but then I’m sure you’ll appreciate I need to go inside and deal with the situation.”
So far, so good.
But maintain the control by not being tempted to respond to the inevitable round of questions rudely hurled your way from all directions that will follow. Instead try, “The first question please from the lady at the front there…” as you point to a chosen reporter.
Then once you’ve selected the journalist you’re going to deal with, you must look at them – don’t do that presentation skills thing of sweeping the assembled throng with your gaze like a lighthouse beam. You will simply look unfocused and distracted.
But as you answer, don’t expect the rest of the press pack to remain silent, in polite deference to their colleague. Quite the reverse: they’ll keep bombarding you with questions as they compete for your attention (and their news editor’s praise for making their voice heard), but carry on answering the one you’ve selected. Then point to another reporter and say firmly: “And the question please from the gentleman at the back…”
After a few questions YOU have selected, make a decisive exit, but let the media mob know when they can perhaps expect more information: “I’m now going to get an update on the situation and will come back to you with more details within the hour.”
Once the media are reassured you’ll give them more, they’re less likely to seek it from elsewhere, perhaps from a negative source.
Not in a shuffling, hesitant way, as you stop to take a another question or two lobbed at your back while you try to negotiate the revolving door of your headquarters, but decisively and with a purpose that shows the audience you are IN CONTROL.
Well done: you’ve defused the drama, restored calm and denied the media the image of their quivering quarry caught in the headlights.