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Channeling Mike Wallace: How to Manage Gotcha Journalism


August 1, 2014

Mike Wallace is gone, but his memory lingers. So, too, does his legacy.

For more than 30 years at CBS, his name could strike fear into the heart of almost any corporate leader. Executives often said, “You know it’s going to be a bad day when you arrive at work to find Mike Wallace and his ‘60 Minutes’ crew in your waiting room.”

Wallace, who died in 2012, didn’t invent the ambush interview. But, from 1968 to the mid-2000s, he was its best-known practitioner. Chasing leaders down halls or streets became his trademark. News organizations of all sizes, both in the United States and abroad, copied his “jump out of the bushes” filming and questioning style.

A lot has changed since those days. Station management has cut TV news crews, focusing more on the bottom line and less on having a strong news operation. True, the ambush-style TV interview — the one that is unscheduled and often totally unexpected — still exists in some markets. Today, however, the ambusher may not be a veteran journalist, but an aspiring blogger with a smartphone and a cause. High-profile executives need to be ready for both. Even a poor quality video with strong content can hit the mainstream media or go viral on the Internet.

There are four types of ambush situations.

First, there is the Wallace-style predictable encounter with a TV crew — the one that shouldn’t catch anybody by surprise but often does.

Second, there is the unpredictable TV interview situation.

Then there is the bait-and-switch radio situation — when someone is live on the air, but thinks that he or she is just providing background information.

Finally, there is the mobile video attack.

An ambush confrontation does not have to be a disaster. Here are the three key elements of survival:

  1. Be prepared.
  2. Seize control.
  3. Stay calm and confident.

Let’s take a closer look at the first two scenarios, which involve coming face-to-face with a TV news crew.

In each case, it’s important to be warm and friendly and to smile. Act as if you’re delighted to see the reporter or reporters — even if you’re not. Shake hands and ask the individual’s name if you don’t know it.

This approach, which someone will probably record on camera, projects openness and confidence, which is not a bad thing to have on TV in the unlikely event that this portion makes the air.

The most likely unscheduled — but predictable — interview occurs when an organization is involved in a major news story or current issue and an official attends an important meeting. Examples include a public hearing, or even a closed hearing, a court appearance or an industry conference. There isn’t an excuse for being poorly prepared for these.

Here’s how to handle it: Walk out of the room prepared, with three key points firmly in mind. Identify the potentially difficult questions in advance and have a short headline-style answer prepared for each. Briefly satisfy any question that isn’t on your agenda and then move on to your talking points. Subsequent questions will stem from those points. If a group confronts you, then start with a brief statement of the current situation and then take a few questions.

Understanding ambush interview techniques

There is also the unpredictable ambush interview — one executive I know ran into news crews on his front porch as he left for work.

Taking charge of this situation may be more difficult, but it is achievable. When the reporter and camera appear, don’t start by answering questions, no matter what the first question is. Start by asking questions, like: Who are you? What organization are you reporting for? What is your story about? Shift control from the reporter to you.

Based on his or her answers, you now have a number of options.
One, if you are comfortable with the topic and know what you want to say about it, then you’re ready.

Two, if you’re not the right person to comment on that topic, then say so and direct him or her to the PR official who can provide information or a more appropriate interview source. That way, you’re unlikely to end up on the evening news.

If you are the correct person to talk about the subject but you don’t feel prepared, then buy some time by saying, “I need to touch base with my office on an important matter first; then I’d be glad to talk to you.” That not only gives you some time to think, it also enables you to confer with your PR counsel to create or refine your key points.

There is another form of ambush interview that most people don’t think about: the telephone call from a radio reporter that is on the air without your knowledge.

Being caught off guard can lead to saying some things you’ll later regret. So, a good policy is to say, in a friendly manner: “John, I wasn’t expecting your call and this is not a good time for me. When can I call you back?”

If the interview is live, then the reporter looks like the bad guy, not you. And, you have time to gather your thoughts. But if you’re not the proper person to comment on that issue for your organization, then tell the reporter to call the PR contact.

And, finally, what about the person with the video camera? If he or she starts asking questions, then follow the same procedure that you would with a TV news crew.

But be aware that in any public situation, the video camera could be on and you might not even know. Never say anything to a colleague or group of supporters that could go viral. Mitt Romney’s devastating “47 percent” remark in 2012 was made to a group of supporters, but a bartender, who was obviously not a Romney fan, recorded and distributed the conversation.

The ambush interview, in one form or another, is here to stay. While the situations vary, each poses potential danger if you don’t handle it properly. Train your executives to be prepared, seize control, and be calm and confident.

The jobs you save may be theirs, yours or both.

Virgil Scudder Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email: virgil@virgilscudder.com.



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