In the firing line: How to handle the tough interviews

Wesley GunterPR director Wesley Gunter watched a “masterful” performance from China’s foreign affairs spokesman, Lu Kang, when grilled by Richard Engel on CNBC. In this guest post, Gunter says interviewees can learn much from Lu’s calm, considered and consistent responses to some tough questions.

In my 14 years of doing PR I’ve facilitated and seen many interviews for celebrities, government spokespersons and CEOs.

Nothing however prepared me for the fiery debate I watched a few days ago when China’s official for its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lu Kang, went head to head with one of CNBC’s best anchors, Richard Engel, regarding the relationship between the United States and China under President Trump.

They discussed sensitive topics such as the South China Sea, trade policies and a looming trade war between China and the USA.

What intrigued me most was that given the sensitive questions brought up by Engel during the interview, which were meant to provoke and put his interviewee on the spot, Lu handled them incredibly well by stating his arguments clearly while keeping his professionalism. And this despite not being a native speaker of the English language.

This was certainly a refreshing change from the interviews held during the recent presidential debates where inflated statements were given, facts were fabricated, and journalists were treated with utter disrespect when they asked difficult questions.

Here are five key lessons on how to ace any challenging interview as showcased by Lu’s masterful performance.

Do your research

Every time Engel tried to take a jab at Lu about sensitive topics he was always put in his place due to Lu’s extensive knowledge of international diplomacy and his currency on these topics.

This made all the difference and was crucial for setting the tone of the interview because if Lu paused for even one moment, he would have been perceived as unsure of what to say.

This is why PR professionals often stress the importance of obtaining the interview questions before hand so the interviewee can do proper research and be adequately prepared prior to sitting in the hot seat.

If the questions cannot be given due to media policies that prevent this, a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the topic should always be prepared as a guide.

Know your key messages and drive your answers back to them

I noticed during the interview how Lu strategically brought most of his answers back to a handful of core key messages that he was trying to reinforce about China by repeating terms such as “protecting China’s core interests”, “One China policy” and even driving home the point several times that “China does not want war of any kind”.

This was a brilliant messaging strategy to give an objective behind his answers to make sure his key talking points were not lost in the conversation.

Stick to the facts

A good tactic Lu used to minimise any risk of getting misquoted was to always formulate his answers based on existing facts on record.

A few times he actually told Engel that his questions were already addressed in past reports and proceeded to paraphrase their content. This added weight and gravitas to his answers and dissuaded speculation and second-guessing.

Don’t lose your cool

I have to give Engel points in giving really tough questions to his interviewee and jumping on every opportunity to corner Lu based on his answers.

But despite the pressure, Lu kept his composure, maintained a poker face and never fell into traps by using the first three points on this list.

It’s particularly important to take note of this point when dealing with TV interviews since all your expressions can be seen by the viewer despite you not saying anything.

Body language, gestures, tone, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues all contribute to the overall impression you make and in this social media age, videos of your performance will be analysed meticulously to find chinks in your armour or to detect signs of deception.

Take the lead and never back down

The most difficult aspect of any interview is to steer it to your agenda (particularly for the interviewee) given the reporter is usually in control. And we all know that CNBC is no pushover.

Lu not only answered each question professionally with key points intact, he managed to bring up other issues about the US that Engel probably didn’t want to talk about.

For example on the 12:20 mark Lu brought up how US leaders tend to pick on China’s leadership when discussing TPP trade. This, technically, has nothing to do with TTP.

Another respectable thing Lu did was to not give in to pressure when dealing withdifficult questions on the South China Sea issue by stating very clearly there would be ‘no negotiation’ on this.

While some may feel that it was pretty blunt, it showed that Lu was on the same channel with the Chinese government’s stand on this issue.

By calling a spade a spade Lu showed there was no reason to sugar-coat China’s official position.

All in all, Lu gave a masterclass in how to conduct difficult interviews.

For a veteran PR professional, it was a genuine pleasure to watch such a proficient delivery and as an amateur follower of regional geopolitics practically living on China’s doorstep, Lu’s measured performance was both informative and reassuring.

Wesley Gunter is the public relations director of Singapore-based PR firm Right Hook Communications


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