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Posted on 04.28.2009

Facing the Music

We've all seen them - those interviews on the 10 o'clock news that make you cringe. Like a trainwreck in slow motion, we watch, turn away and then go back for more.

Perhaps it's a guilty looking CEO trying unsuccessfully to get to his car while fielding questions from an aggressive reporter. Or an executive angrily defending his organization - and in the process - picking a fight with a journalist. Or, my personal favorite, this guy.

Whether you feel outraged, dumbfounded or downright sorry for the person being interviewed, we inevitably ask ourselves "what in the heck was that he thinking?" In defense of guilty looking executives everywhere, talking with the media can be intimidating. While your first instinct may be to freeze like a deer in the headlights, it is possible to turn an uncomfortable situation into a positive one - or at least neutralize it in a way that allows you to put forth your message.

Let's face it: you may be asked an uncomfortable question during the course of an interview. Answer it and move on. Find a way to "bridge" to your message - the message the public needs to hear about your company, product or situation. Ignoring uncomfortable questions doesn't work. Not only will you look evasive but you will undoubtedly irritate the reporter (not a good move, trust me). If you can't comment, explain why. Perhaps a pending lawsuit or patient confidentiality regulations simply don't permit it. If possible, go one step further. Express appropriate emotion or address the situation in very general terms. Most importantly, don't bank on the fact that faking a coughing fit or ignoring the question completely will ensure your interview never makes it to air. That's what the county executive in the video must have thought. When a local investigative reporter doing a segment on government waste asked him about a new $5.3 million county building that was sitting vacant due to a funding dispute, he chose to focus on saving the reporter's soul rather than just answering the question.

There was likely a good reason behind the funding dispute and this was his chance to share his side of the story and reassure the public it would be resolved. Instead, he chose to repeat the same phrase - which was irrelevant to this matter - over and over again. In the process, he came off as smug and, worse, downright loopy. The moral of the story? As a leader, you may be called upon to talk with the media - especially when times are tough. Be honest. Be forthcoming to the extent that you can. And, finally, don't be afraid to face the music.

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