Media Minute: Ambushed! Now What?
By Jerry Brown, APR
Ambush interviews. There’s nothing scarier or potentially more damaging when dealing with reporters.
How can you avoid them? And what should you do if you find yourself caught in one?
A recent incident involving U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado provides a good case study for examining those questions.
It all began when Coffman, a Republican who represents the southern suburbs of Denver, was caught on tape saying at a private campaign fundraiser in a conservative part of his district that he didn’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States and that “in his heart, he’s not an American.”
Armed with audiotape of Coffman’s comment, reporter Kyle Clark did an “exclusive” story about Coffman’s apparent endorsement of the birther issue on Denver’s 9News. Coffman’s office promptly issued a statement saying the congressman misspoke and apologizing for the comment.
Clark says he spent the next several days trying to get Coffman to agree to an on-camera interview and that Coffman’s office ignored the requests.
Microphone in hand and videotape rolling, Clark finally caught up with the congressman in Denver on his way to another fundraiser. Over the next 52 seconds, Coffman repeated the same one-line statement five times: “I stand by my statement that I misspoke and I apologize.”
The interview’s gotten some play within the political sphere locally and even nationally because of the birther issue and because of the robotic, deer-in-the-headlights way Coffman repeated the same canned statement over and over.
I don’t want to get into the birther issue here. That’s outside the scope of the Media Minute.
But I heard several commentators use Coffman’s performance as an opportunity to criticize the advice he presumably got from his PR advisor(s) not to elaborate on the statement issued by his office.
Did Coffman get bad advice from his PR staff? I agree with the decision that Coffman shouldn’t expand on the statement released by his office. But his staff could have done a better job of prepping him to do that more effectively. Could Coffman have done a better job of responding to the reporter’s questions? Absolutely.
So, what could Coffman and his advisors have done differently? Let’s start at the top.
Avoid the ambush
Most ambush interviews happen because the target of the interview has turned down a request, often repeated requests, for an interview.
Sometimes a simple no to an interview request is all it takes. But the chances of an ambush interview go up dramatically when a reporter persists in the request and it involves a story the reporter sees as hot. That was the case here. Coffman and his staff shouldn’t have been surprised by the ambush. They should have expected it.
How could they have avoided it? By agreeing to the interview request. Why would they do that? To gain more control over when and where it happened and avoid the appearance of being overly defensive. And Coffman should have been prepared with his own agenda for the interview — other topics to talk about. See my version of the interview below.
You’ve been ambushed! Now what?
Reporters do ambush interviews to trap their victims into looking guilty or foolish. Mission accomplished if that happens. In Coffman’s case, the reporter probably went away with a feeling of mission accomplished. Watch the interview and judge for yourself. The ambush interview begins a minute and 20 seconds into the story.
Your job if ambushed? Defuse the confrontation and avoid looking guilty or foolish. With that in mind, here’s how I think Coffman should have responded to the reporter’s questions. The questions are taken directly from the interview. The answers are mine.
Q. I apologize for showing up unannounced. I’ve been trying to call your staff. They won’t return my phone calls. So, let me ask you, after your comments about the President, do you feel that voters are owed a better explanation than just “I misspoke”?
A. I stand by my statement that I misspoke and I apologize. (Coffman’s response.)
Q. Okay. And who are you apologizing to?
A. My statement’s pretty self-explanatory. I don’t really have anything to add.
Q. I apologize. We talk to you all the time. You’re a very forthcoming guy. Who’s telling you not to talk and to handle it like this?
A. Again, I misspoke. And I don’t have anything else to say. I’m focusing on representing the people in my district. We should be spending our time talking about the real issues facing the citizens of Colorado. Things like jobs, the economy and [fill in the blank].
Q. Was it that you thought it would go over well in Elbert County where folks are very conservative and you’d never say something like that in the suburbs?
A. To repeat one more time, my statement’s self-explanatory and I don’t have anything else to say on the issue. We should be talking about putting more people work, improving the economy and [fill in the blank].
Q. Is there anything I can ask you that you’ll answer differently?
A. Ask me about how we can put more people to work, improve the economy or [fill in the blank].
That’s my two cents’ worth. What’s yours?
Check out Jerry’s new content-focused blog at www.JerryBrownPR.com.