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Understand media questions and how to respond

Recognize types of media questions in an interview and learn how to address them. Startups need to master media skills in order to promote, sell and share their messages. This series discusses what you need to know—see the introductory overview as well as the full series list below.


In a media interview, interviewers will ask you many types of questions, depending on their agenda and needs. Some media questions are more dangerous than others. Recognizing the nature of a question will help you respond more effectively. Some are designed to elicit information, while others may provoke a reaction.

In each case below, you will see an example of the type of question and how to answer and focus on your desired message.

Confrontational/loaded media questions

This type of question can be designed to surprise you or repeat the negative—in both cases, bridge back to your key messages. Do not repeat negative questions. Correct the errors and bridge to safer ground.

Example:

Q: When are you going to stop dumping chemicals directly into the river?
A: Our water treatment far exceeds provincial standards. In fact, we have received an award for efficient control systems since they were initiated three years ago.

Vague or open media questions

Interviewers may ask a vague question if they have not prepared well or do not know what to ask. Use it as a “free” opportunity to deliver your message!

Example:

Q: What is happening in your company and market these days?
A: Our strategy is to emphasize our brand reputation, while also providing top-quality service and product performance. Right now…

Hypothetical media questions

This approach gets you to comment on something that may be unlikely to happen and runs the risk of taking you off topic.

Example:

Q: Would your company consider switching your sales partnerships if government regulations changed?
A: That’s a hypothetical question, but I can say that as a company, we are very committed to our existing channels and partners, and see no reason to make changes.

Repeat questions

The interviewer may repeat a question several times to get you to say something you don’t want to. Repeat your original answer again to stay out of trouble. If you keep repeating the answer, the interviewer will stop asking.

Off the record (don’t do it!)

Never go off the record. Period. It’s common to have a short chat with the interviewer before the camera or mic gets turned on, but be wary of what you say as it might end up in the interview regardless of how friendly or innocent it seems.

Off-topic media questions

An interviewer may ask you to comment on a part of your company you don’t know about. Gracefully offer to find someone who is more appropriate and redirect back to the topic. If they ask you about a subject outside the interview you don’t want to discuss, just say you would prefer to discuss your area of expertise and bridge to your key messages.

Example:

Q: What do you think about your US division’s results?
A: I would prefer to discuss my responsibilities in Canada. The US is doing well and I can put you in touch with my counterpart there. Here in Canada…

Set-up questions

A set-up is a loaded question that might get you to say something you don’t want to.

Example:

Q: Isn’t it true that…?
A: No, that’s a common misconception. In fact, … [stick with the facts and bridge into your key messages].

Speculative questions

Predicting the future is risky, so be careful if you hear this type of question. Stick to your key messages.

Example: 

Q: Is it possible that [Company X] will have a double-digit growth this year?
A: That’s for the consumers to decide. [Company X] has a growing customer base in Canada, and our innovative, effective products put the company in a good position to continue our growth internationally…

Paraphrasing

This is a question that attempts to put words in your mouth. Nip it in the bud with a short “no,” and bridge to your key message.

Example:

Q: So you’re telling me that by [insert misrepresentation here]?
A: No. Programs like this…

Non-questions

When an interviewer makes a statement instead of asking a question, answer with a positive key message.

Example:

Q: It seems to me that you should know what your competitors are up to.
A: Our first priority is to the shareholders, employees and customers of this company. Our first-place market position over the previous five years indicates that we know our market and continue to serve it well.

Ranking

Make sure you don’t get forced into the minefield of choosing between a number of important issues.

Example:

Q: What do you consider to be the three most important initiatives your company can take regarding environmental clean-up?
A: We have a number of important responsibilities—among them are meeting government guidelines, being a good member of the community, and ensuring the health and safety of our employees.

Multiple questions

If an interviewer asks more than one question at a time, you can choose which one you want to answer. Often they will move on and not repeat the other (unanswered) questions. This is known as cherry-picking.

Example:

Q: We are seeing lots of new regulations in cybersecurity. How will this impact your business, what does this mean for the industry and how will you address these issues with your product offering?
A: Cybersecurity is a huge issue for everyone. We have always made it a top priority to protect our customers’ private information. We have a dedicated team that is always innovating to stay ahead of regulations. In fact, we are introducing…

Personal questions

Know where to draw the line. Controversial questions are best addressed with short responses. If certain information is in the public domain, answer succinctly and look for an opportunity to bridge to your own agenda.

Example:

Q: How many options did you receive this year?
A: They are a matter of OSC record. [Company X] encourages employee share ownership. Seventy percent of employees are shareholders, and an even higher number are unit-holders. The kind of energy this personal commitment generates is evident in everything we do.

Safe media questions

Be sure to answer these types of questions—they help you and the interviewer.

Informational questions

This form of question allows you to introduce your key messages by simply making positive points or expanding on the information you present.

Example:

Q: Can you tell viewers where they can find out more?
A: Yes, you can visit [provide your URL].

Confirmational questions

This is a safe question that allows you to confirm facts and add more information.

Example:

Q: Can you confirm that [product/service] is sold for [dollar amount] through [key distributor(s)]?
A: Yes. [Product name] sells for [dollar amount] and is available through [name key distribution channel(s)].

Articles in this series: