From The Rock

A bad answer to a reporter’s question sounds like, “I’ll break you in half.”

By | January 29, 2014

Ah, the State of the Union address. The speech. The counter-speech. The media frenzy. The State of the Union is a political playground for reporters, as it fuels the fire for numerous debates, analyses, predictions and fact checks. It offers opportunities for great interviews to back up those debates, analyses, predictions and fact checks. And it creates opportunities for people to screw up in a very public way. 
 
If you want a great example of how emotions can cause sticky questions to become even stickier situations, look no further than last night’s interaction between Rep. Michael Grimm of New York and local NY1 reporter Michael Scotto at the State of the Union. When Scotto asked Grimm a question regarding a federal investigation into his campaign finances, Grimm offered a less-than-desirable response in the form of a threat. Check out the article and video here, and then I’ll give you the “PR 101” insight.
 
Ouch! I’ll sum it up.
 
Mistake 1: Emotional Response
Anger is never the best response if you find yourself at odds with a reporter’s line of questioning. Scotto even mentions a couple of options that would have been better than a threat. Here are my suggestions: 
 
“Let’s focus on the reason we’re here tonight.” 
“That’s not really a fair question for tonight’s event.” 
“I appreciate your interest, but let’s stick to tonight’s purpose.” 
 
Anything is better than “I will break you in half. Like a boy.” As it is, Grimm made a threat to cause bodily harm to a reporter on camera at one of the biggest political events of the year. This does not bode well for his reputation as a credible, level-headed political leader. 
 
In all interview situations – live or otherwise – it’s important to maintain composure and respond appropriately. Remember, you can control the interaction – even in a situation where you’re being asked questions that you are unable or unwilling to answer at that time. Always offer to discuss them at a later date if that is a possibility. This will give you time to prepare for that interview rather than being rushed in an ambush.   
 
Mistake 2: The Unapologetic Explanation 
Grimm’s first public response regarding the situation was to explain why he reacted that way. That was a bad move. Instead of accepting that he overreacted to the reporter’s question, he actually showed no remorse. He even sounded a bit cavalier about his reaction. The appropriate response from Grimm would have been to apologize to the reporter and to accept responsibility for his actions. The end. Explaining really made him seem even more like the villain here. He did eventually apologize, but the damage was done. 
 
Mistake 3: Opening the Flood Gates
How many of us want to know more about this federal investigation of Grimm’s campaign finances? Me, me, me! And so do many more people in New York, across the U.S. and particularly in the media. As Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary whose tweet was cited in the article, said, Rep. Grimm has now made it impossible for reporters NOT to ask him about his campaign finance problems. Not a smart move.”
 
Had Grimm handled the situation calmly, the question and his answer likely would have been a blip on the radar and simply part of the barrage of questions Grimm likely is already receiving from the media on the subject. Making a threat to the reporter made me think that he must have something to hide. It actually made me hope that more information will come out soon. I guarantee reporters who weren’t previously interested in this investigation are now digging into the details and trying to “get the scoop.”
 
In conclusion, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that if Grimm were my client, I would have felt Scotto’s question out of place given that it was the night of the State of the Union. Was he taking advantage of the opportunity to catch Grimm by surprise in hope of a flub? Probably. And to some degree, his strategy worked. But, Scotto is a seasoned reporter who interviews politicians regularly – I’m sure he didn’t expect such anger from his interviewee. Whether it was a “cheap shot” or not, Grimm’s reaction teaches us all a lesson on the importance of keeping your cool in all interview scenarios.