Communicating from the Hot Seat: Responding to Public Criticism & Tough Questions

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Since his election, Donald Trump has singled out several U.S. companies for criticism. Considering the immediate effect of his condemnations on those companies’ stock prices, we turned to executive communication expert Briar Goldberg for insights on how organizations and their leaders should prepare to respond any time they get called out — in the business arena or on the political stage.

We’ve all been in the hot seat. Maybe the one you know best is the one across from your boss’s desk. Maybe it’s that chair at the head of the boardroom table right next to your new activist shareholder. Or maybe for some of you, the hot seat isn’t a seat at all but the podium you stand behind, trying to keep your cool as you field pointed questions from reporters during an emergency press conference.

“The hot seat” and “tough questions” are practically synonymous. And sooner or later, those of us in business will be required to address those tough questions in very public settings. In fact, many businesses such as GM and Boeing have already been required to answer tough questions on the public stage as a result of the new president’s actions. Whether it’s in the political, corporate, or personal arena, the way we handle the hot seat is everything.

So what should you do if you find yourself in the unwanted spotlight? The first rule of thumb:

Determine Whether You Actually Need to Respond

Pause. Take a breath.

There’s nothing more infuriating than hearing something false or misleading about you or your company in a public setting. Our natural instinct is to fire back a response right away, but this might not be the best course of action. The tone of those quick, emotional responses can sound defensive and rash, which will likely only make matters worse. Instead, take a moment to pause and really strategize about what you’re going to say, or consider whether you need to say anything at all. Not only does the pause give you time to calm down and think rationally, but it can also shift the power and control to your favor in a heated situation.

If you determine that a response is the correct course of action, it won’t be long before you find yourself in some kind of press conference or interview, responding to questions. So here are 5 tips to help you prepare for your next Q&A:

1. Answer the Question

Nothing makes you look more unprepared, nervous, or, worst case, like you’re hiding something, than beating around the bush or failing to answer a question.

That isn’t to say that you should begin every response with “yes” or “no,” but you must acknowledge the essence of the question in your response.

Now take this one step further. Media-savvy communicators know that responses to tough questions don’t stop with the direct answer. To maintain full control of the interview, answer the question first, then transition into the key message you want to get across.

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, demonstrated this technique deftly in a 2016 interview with David Muir when probed about Apple’s decision not to write software that would help the FBI unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter.  

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Question: “…[s]ome of the families of the victims in San Bernardino have come out in support of the judge’s order that Apple help the FBI unlock that iPhone. One family reportedly saying they were angry and confused as to why Apple is refusing to do this. What would you say to those families tonight?”

First, Cook answers the question he was asked:

Answer: “David they have our deepest sympathy. What’ they’ve been through no one should have to go through. Apple has cooperated with the FBI fully in this case. They came to us and asked us for all the information we had on this phone. And we gave everything that we had…

Then, he transitions into his own message:

Transition: “But this case is not about one phone, this case is about the future.”

Message: “What is at stake here is – can the government compel Apple to write software that we believe would make hundreds of millions of customers vulnerable around the world including the US…”

2. Remove Heated Terminology in Your Response

There’s a good chance the questions that come at you in these critical Q&A situations will be loaded with some sharp terminology. Don’t be alarmed — loaded language is a tactic individuals and even some reporters might use to throw you off or snag the soundbite that will send ratings through the roof.

But the last thing you want is for your public, on-the-record responses to be filled with words that are not your own, especially if those words are sharp and don’t serve your higher purpose. So, as you respond, make a conscious effort to rephrase the question, removing any of that loaded language.

Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, used this technique repeatedly during her testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2015. In this line of questioning, John J. Duncan (R-Tenn) asked Ms. Richards about Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donation program using what might be considered loaded terminology:

Question: “Do you defend the sale of baby body parts?”

In her response, Ms. Richard’s replaces the phrase “baby body parts” with “fetal tissue”

Answer: “No, and I think that is really a total mischaracterization. Fetal tissue research, which as I mentioned, was started — the whole commission that legalized and created the structure under fetal tissue research — was started under the Reagan administration. And what it does is facilitates fetal tissue donation…”

Rather than dwell on the hot-button phrase or allow it to fluster her, she simply replaces Duncan’s terminology with a less loaded label to regain control of her message.

3. Remember Your Job; Remember the Reporter’s Job

Anytime you find yourself in an interview or Q&A session, it’s important to remember that your goals are likely different from the goals of the person asking you the questions. This doesn’t necessarily mean the reporter is “out to get you,” but simply that it’s not her job to have your best interest in mind. Many interviews have turned into blazing red hot seats when the person being interviewed mistakenly assumes the reporter is his friend, ally, or confidant.

Going into an interview with this in mind will actually make you more aware of the tactics some reporters use to get a great soundbite or throw you off your message. The next time you watch an interview on TV, see if you can spot the following:

Sound-bite bating in the form of a question or paraphrasing

We love this John Oliver compilation of interviewers prompting their subjects to deliver the soundbites they need.

Seemingly inconsequential, friendly chatter during the interview

CNN’s former nightly news host Larry King engaged in this kind of banter often before asking his guests tough questions.

In 2001 Mr. King began an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney by asking if there was a “conflict inside the [Bush] administration’ after President George W. Bush said the United States would do ‘whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself” in the event of attack by China. The statement was controversial because it appeared to signal a significant change in US policy towards Taiwan.  In the middle of his line of questioning, Mr. King briefly changed the subject before pressing Mr. Cheney further:

Larry King: If I call you “Dick,” forgive me. We’ve known each other for a long time.

Dick Cheney: Absolutely.

Larry King: We’re in the same club, we’re in the same heart thing. I’ll never forget that night, talking to you.

Dick Cheney: I remember it very, very well.

Larry King: We sat in New Orleans, in the Republican Convention, we sat on the stairwell. Dick Cheney asked me to explain everything about heart surgery.

Reporters sometimes take sidebars like this to calm nervous spokespeople, which is not always a bad thing. It’s when spokespeople misinterpret that sidebar as an indication of friendship and loyalty that they can get into trouble. The best way to protect yourself is to be friendly, authentic, and open, but to stay focused on the message you came to deliver.

4. Prepare for Anything

Like any speaking engagement, the key to ensuring a smooth Q&A or a successful response to a public attack is preparation. Get your entire team together – your communication managers, your external PR advisors and any member of your organization that may be called upon to speak in public or answer questions. This means everyone from your executive spokespeople down to your assistant who might answer the phone and be the first point of contact for a reporter. Make sure everyone knows the talking points. Then rehearse — mock Q&As, mock interviews, practice press conferences. The more familiar the setting and the questions feel, the more likely you’ll be able to maintain control of the situation and shine.

5. Always Take the High Road

To most of us, the thought of a hostile Q&A seems downright terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Think of hostile questions like ju-jit-su: if we respond correctly we can actually use the force of sharp questions to propel us into our finest public moments.

Here’s a little secret: your audience knows when a question is loaded or downright inappropriate. Even if you’re asked to address an audience full of stakeholders who might not be on your side of the issue at hand, they still know the difference between difficult questions and inappropriate or hostile ones. They’ll want you to respond to the difficult question, but they’ll cringe at the interviewer who asks the inappropriate question — and that’s your opportunity.

Stay calm, stay collected, and never allow yourself to go to blows with someone who’s trying to trick you into playing in the mud. Your audience will have much more respect for you if you stay professional when met face-to-face with unprofessionalism. And in difficult situations, the respect of your audience is invaluable. If your audience respects you they will, at the very least, be willing to hear your side of any argument or story, which is your best opportunity to change their minds and their hearts.