Sometimes it’s inevitable that a media interview will be hard going.

All it takes is a sensitive topic, a journalist adept at pulling every emotional lever, a reactive interviewee and there you have it: a recipe for disaster.

A perfect example of this terrible trifecta occurred during the recent Fairfax ABC investigation into our Aged Care Sector, an exposé that shone the light on some appalling but hopefully isolated incidents of assault and neglect of Australia’s elderly.

In the hot seat was CEO of Leading Age Services Australia, Sean Rooney. And what could have been a prime opportunity to seize a tough conversation by the horns and position the association as staunch advocates for some of our most vulnerable members of society became sadly, a masterclass in how not to be interviewed.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the story:

So what could Sean have done differently?

There are 3 key lessons here for anyone being interviewed by the media.

Lesson number 1: Play the Issue Not the Reporter:

The first rule in handling a tough interview is to play the issue, not the reporter. Recognise that while it’s a reporter’s role to be interrogative, play devil’s advocate and use emotionally laden language, your role is precisely the opposite.

You must enter the interview with determination: rather than allowing yourself to be thrown off course, your goal is to stay calm and focus solely on the issue at hand. This is where Sean quickly came undone: even before he began speaking (just 33 seconds into being on camera) he’d already revealed his emotions, appearing upset and offended. Terrible start!

Reporters aim to ruffle your feathers because it lures you off message and helps them extract the real story. Accept this from the outset and, especially if you’ve accepted an interview on a tough subject, step into the debate assertively.

Lesson Number 2: Use Examples and Avoid Short Answers

There’s no better way to clearly and persuasively convey your key messages than with lengthy real-life stories.

Consider this excerpt from the ABC interview:

Reporter: “Why not have staffing ratios as they do in child care and hospitals?”

Sean: “With regards to staff ratios as I said that is a very blunt instrument in order to deliver person centered flexible care in order to meet a growing and changing set of needs.”

Reporter (interrupting): “So you don’t believe there should be staff to resident ratios?”

Sean: “No, I don’t believe because the international literature doesn’t actually support that.”

In just two questions and 33 seconds, Sean was completely undone.

But if instead Sean had delivered two long contextual stories with specific examples of flexible staffing ratios in a specific facility that delivered incredible outcomes for residents, and backed it all up with confident body language, the tone and direction of the interview would have been completely different.

This is partly why the Four Corners investigation was so compelling: it presented real and horrific examples of mistreatment that drew the audience in and engaged them on a highly emotional level.

Another advantage of this approach is it reduces the number of questions a reporter can ask, because you’re doing most of the talking.

Lesson Number 3: Control the Interview Visuals

No matter how tough the interview topic, or what the reporter may prefer, always remember: you can control the setting that you’re interviewed in.

In our ABC example, the aged care industry had plenty of notice about the upcoming story and Leading Age Services Australia knew it was going to be tough. The peak body was always going to characterized as the “bad guy”.

But even when public opinion might be that you’re defending the indefensible, you don’t have to accept what you’re given, and sit where you’re told to sit.  Yes, it takes assertiveness (and the right media manager) but taking charge of the visuals can help you build a scene that supports your message, which is great for TV. The reporter won’t like it, because it’s harder for them to steam roll you, but they will still take the interview and it will be a much better result.

In this case, Sean would have been smarter to tell producers he had lots of great overlay or b-roll opportunities and suggest being interviewed while giving a tour and going on a day trip.

He could have been seen strolling the hallways of a local world leading aged care facility.  He could have chatted to the reporter while he was in the kitchen serving great meals to residents.  He could have been interviewed while going on an exciting day trip with residents.

In summary, there’s no reason why as interviewee you can’t take the driver’s seat – even when it’s a sensitive topic, or the journalist is drilling you with tough questions. Recognise that an interview is ultimately a game: the participant who’s most certain always wins. So put your emotions aside, take control and focus on storytelling – you’ll win the audience and save yourself from a media disaster.

Tony Nicholls

Tony Nicholls

Founder and Director of Good Talent Media

Tony Nicholls is an accomplished journalist who has held roles for more than ten years with the ABC, SBS and Network Ten, covering thousands of news stories across Victoria, Australia and in the international media.


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