Monday, June 7, 2010

Handling the "Ambush" Interview

Corporate Counsel recently posted a story, along with video, of a lawyer trapped in his office by a reporter and camera crew hot on a story:

'I Can't': TV Reporter Forces In-House Counsel to Tap Dance on Air

It's every corporate counsel's worst nightmare: Being forced to tap dance, dodging questions from a pushy TV news reporter on air. "I can't give you a legal opinion," a huffy Huron County, Mich., corporation counsel Stephen Allen tells WNEM reporter Randy Wimbley, who's firmly wedged in the doorway of his office. Wimbley peppers Allen with tough questions for a WNEM story on a controversy over local officials profitting [sic] from putting wind turbines on county property. And somehow, Allen doesn't cut the interview short, but allows it to continue until Wimbley is literally reading the definition of "conflict of interest" to him out of a Michigan zoning and planning guide book. "Sir, what part of 'I'm not going to give you legal advice' don't you understand?" a peeved Allen fires back at him.

Click here to watch the video from

Many lawyers, particularly litigators, feel that if they can handle a hostile adversary, witness or judge, they can handle a hostile reporter. However, an interview by a reporter is not the same as an appearance in court. There are rules that apply in a courtroom, along with a judge to referee and enforce the rules. The rules governing the conduct of a news interview, to the extent that they exist, are not always clear and well known, there is no referee, and a lawyer lacking knowledge on how journalists gather news can be at a disadvantage.

I shared the video with my colleague Sallie Gaines, a senior vice-president of media relations for Hill & Knowlton. Sallie is well known in Chicago as a former business reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and is knowledgeable about the rules of journalism. Sallie is often called upon to conduct media training of Hill & Knowlton clients.Sallie shared the following tips with me on how a lawyer should handle the “ambush” interview:

Rule One is to not allow yourself to be ambushed. You should know that, when an issue is likely to be controversial, the media will come knocking. HAVE YOUR MESSAGE READY, and you decide when/where to deliver that message.

Mr. Allen should have expected these questions to arise and had his response prepared. Then, when he opens his office door to discover the “ambush,” he should have politely said he would love the chance to sit down with the reporter and wished he had known the reporter was coming. He is rushing to a meeting. Can the reporter meet with him in 15 minutes? Smile. Have the reporter –and camera—taken to a neutral place (probably a conference room, or have them wait in the lobby) while Mr. Allen collects his thoughts and reviews his messaging, and goes for a quick interview on HIS terms.

Remember: The public dislikes and distrusts the media as much as they distrust politicians and government bureaucrats. If you do not react like a guilty person, but rather a cooperative person wanting to talk about this important issue – but not at this exact second—the viewers will be on your side (as long as you do follow up quickly and give that interview).

If the topic is one that you absolutely MAY NOT discuss in any fashion for legal reasons, you need not be defensive or embarrassed about saying that. You need not look defensive. You simply look straight at the reporter and in your calmest, most professional voice say, “I would like to discuss that with you and explain it to your viewers. But you need to understand that Judge Jones has imposed a strict gag order in this case, and I am barred from doing so. All I can do is strongly urge you to attend the trial each day.” Or “I would like to discuss that with you and explain it to your viewers, but you need to know that my client has signed a nondisclosure agreement and he—and I –would be breaking the law by doing so.”

If you cannot respond, is there something you CAN legally or ethically say? If so, add, “What I can tell you is that ….”

A few other tips:

Never repeat the negative language in the reporter’s question. Instead of “my client is not guilty of conflict of interest” say, “Oh, I strongly disagree with that. My client has clearly disclosed…”

Don’t look frightened or angry. That looks like guilt in the eyes of the viewer. Look calmly at the reporter and keep your professional composure.

If you are accosted on your way into the office—e.g. in the parking lot—look the reporter in the eye, smile, shake his/her hand and KEEP WALKING. Say, “Sure, I’d be pleased to talk to you, but let’s not clog up the street. Won’t you and your camera crew please come into the office so we can have a conversation without distraction.” Smile and keep walking. Nobody can accuse you of dodging the question. The reporter and camera crew will follow, but not be able to do anything. If they have to go through security in your building lobby, great. Go ahead, and tell them to come up to Floor X. Get on your cell, call up and get a conference room. All of this delay gives YOU time to pull together your thoughts and clarify what you want to say. Have receptionist/admin show reporter/camera crew to the conference room. You don’t have to be standing there to greet them. Take the time to pull together your thoughts. Make a call to your client or colleague if necessary to get more information or clarify what you should say.

You say how long you have. “Thank you for coming up. I have 10 minutes before my next meeting. Can you repeat the question please?

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