How to Control a Media Interview

December 29, 2008

By Patrick McGee

Copyright December 2008

If you’re afraid/concerned about where the reporter is going to take an interview, then you need to know how to control the direction of the interaction. There are three key things you want to keep in the front of your mind:

  1. Own it. Consciously commit to be in charge. If this was a business meeting you were running, would you simply be reactive to the questions or direction in which the participants wanted to go? I don’t think so. You would lead the meeting and maintain a pre-determined focus. Why does this have to be the reporter’s meeting? It should be yours, even if they asked for it.
  2. Prepare. Determine the interview outcome that will meet your needs, the needs of the reporter and those of the readers/viewers/listeners (that YOU decide are the target). Build the whole story – not just messages – so that you can tell that story completely, concisely and compellingly and the reporter can, at least in theory, just take that story and have a great product for their audience. Be prepared to bring the story without any stimulus from the reporter. In other words, you don’t have to wait for the questions. (I watched Richard Branson of Virgin companies’ fame tell his mobile phone story on a remote TV interview for three or four minutes without a single question from the media host because Branson’s earpiece wasn’t working and he couldn’t hear the host. So, he just launched into his story and stopped when he was finished. Brilliant!)
  3. Manage the interaction using premise challenges. In effect, explain why you won’t answer a question precisely, but rather will respond appropriately, and use guiding to let the reporter know where this interaction is going. (They may not like that you’re leading but another part of them likes to know where they’re going.)

In my Media Training sessions at McGee+Associates I often get asked about controlling the interview: who does this well? One only has to watch television to see people who are masters, strivers and failures. But there was one situation recently that I thought provided an excellent real life example of the concepts outlined above.

On December 9, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, along with his staff and members of the FBI, the IRS, and the Postal Service held a full-house press conference to announce the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and John Harris, his Chief of Staff, on corruption charges. (All of this was included in the notice to media, so they knew going in what the presser was about.)

I’m going to take you through excerpts of the transcript to show you the words Fitzgerald used to control this interaction with the media. And if you want to watch him in action you can do that here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4691428975272263845

and/or read the full transcript here: http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2008/12/fitzgerald_press_conference_on.html

Fitzgerald clearly did not go into this interaction unprepared. He was in charge. He was focussed. He had a story and he told it and told it well. And he guided the media during the session and challenged the appropriateness or premise of their questions. This is the technique I’m going to illustrate below. Key points will be underlined. Any editorial comments I have will be in bracketed italics either before or after the transcript material from Federal News Service (all typos in the transcript are theirs and any others are mine) carried on the Chicago Sun-Times blog of Lynn Sweet.

(Fitzgerald starts the press conference by introducing his colleagues and even here he is guiding the reporters with directions and then he launches into his story which, in one paragraph, is really the essential story without the details.)

MR. FITZGERALD: Good morning. Joining me is — to my far right, is Rob Grant, the special agent in charge for the FBI office here in Chicago. To his left is Al Patton, the special agent in charge of the IRS Criminal Investigative Division, and to his left is Tom Brady, the inspector in charge of the Postal Inspection Service in Chicago. Behind me, to my left, are Carrie Hamilton, Reid Schar and Chris Niewoehner, assistant U.S. attorneys.

This is a sad day for government. It’s a very sad day for Illinois government. Governor Blagojevich has taken us to a truly new low. Governor Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree. We acted to stop that crime spree.  (Fitzgerald, with that last sentence, has just covered off one of the weak spots in the actions he has just announced – did they act too soon? He will come back to this point/message in his story several times in the press conference and it will be easier to defend/explain as part of the story. For the next 14 minutes or so, he tells the long version of the story and lets the FBI man have his say.)

(As Fitzgerald is walking back to the lectern after Special Agent Rob Grant is finished, the first question is thrown at him. It deals with the timing issue.)

Q Mr. Fitzgerald, was this done today in an effort to head off the appointment of someone to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat? Was it so imminent that that’s why you had to step in?

MR. FITZGERALD: I would say that we decided that this required unusual measures, and there were a lot of things going on that were imminent.

There’s a bill sitting on the desk that we think a person who was supporting that bill has been squeezed to give $100,000. And to let that bill be signed to me would be very, very troubling.

There is a hospital — Children’s Memorial Hospital — believing that it’s getting $8 million, but its CEO has not coughed up a campaign contribution. And the thought that that money may get pulled back from a Children’s Memorial Hospital is something that you cannot abide.

There is an editor that they’d like fired from the Tribune. And I laid awake at night worrying whether I’d read in the paper in the morning that when there were layoffs that we’d find out that that person was laid out. The complaint– the complaint lays out, in there, in fact, when there were layoffs, there were conversations to find out whether the editor who should have — they thought should be fired was fired, and he wasn’t, and the governor was asking whether there’d be more layoffs. So we have the governors, in these modern times, the only one who’s looking for more layoffs.

You take that, what’s going on, add it to the fact that we have a Senate seat that seemed to be as recently as days ago auctioned off to the — you know, to the highest bidder for campaign contributions. And Governor Blagojevich’s own words on the tape with a bug that’s set forth in the complaint talked about selling this like a sports agent.

Q Couldn’t he just –

MR. FITZGERALD: So — I’m just — so we stepped in for a number of reasons.

Basically, as I said before, we’re in the middle of a corruption crime spree and we wanted to stop it.

(Members of press shouting simultaneous questions.)

Okay. Can we –

Q Patrick, you said –

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay, just one second. No, no, let me just say one thing. We’re going to stay here as long as this is productive. We will — you’re not on a clock. We want to dispel any misperceptions. So don’t feel like you got to — anyone’s got to yell to get a question in.

Okay.

Q (Inaudible) — you said twice that we shouldn’t cast aspersions on people who we think we recognize within the complaint. Does that mean that all of these people are beyond blame in any way? I mean, some of the things in the complaint point a very kind of a tacky finger at some people, their willingness to play. And if pay to play is illegal, isn’t the willingness to play also culpable, even if you didn’t charge today?

MR. FITZGERALD: What I’m trying to say is this. Look, we never give – ….I’m never going to say no, because that’s just our practice. But I don’t want people, when I answer those questions, ….What I’m trying to do is explain caution about a complaint. …

Yes? (He points out a reporter for the next question, who says they want to know one thing, then outlines two parts with various conclusions and data .)

Q Would you please address one thing? And that is, when Blagojevich walks out of here today, unless I’m mistaken about the constitution of Illinois, he will still be governor. He will still have the power to make the appointment to the Senate seat. He will still have the power whether or not he’s going to sign the bill that you are concerned about.

Also would you address the fact — and I know you’ve referred to this — would you just address whether or not President-elect Obama was aware that any of these things were taking place?

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay. I’m not going to speak for what the president-elect was aware of. We make no allegations that he’s aware of anything, and that’s as simply as I can put it.

And the first part, my understanding is that he is the sitting governor of Illinois today, now, and that is not something we have any say in or control over. So at the end of the day, he will be the sitting governor.

Q In your view, in your view, Pat, in your view –

(There are lots of questions and hands waving. He sorts it out.)

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay, this — and then Carlos next.

Q In your view, Pat, should the governor, on his own volition, step aside while he fights these charges, or should the Illinois state legislature move ahead with what it’s threatened to do and impeach him? What are your views on both of those?

MR. FITZGERALD: The Office of the United States Attorney has no view. We are not entitled to any view. And the view of what happens in the legislature of Illinois is not for us.  (When Ari Fleischer was George W. Bush’s Press Secretary, he might have said: “The premise of your question is not valid so I can’t answer it. But I can tell you this….” Fitzgerald just skips calling it a premise challenge and goes directly to an explanation of the fault in the premise of the question. His response is strong and clear and uses deep, as in fundamental, context to respond. Too many interviewees don’t go back far enough and miss out on using some of their strongest arguments.)

Q What do you –

Q Pat –

MR. FITZGERALD: Carlos. Carlos and then Carol (sp).

Q Pat, given the scope and the brazenness of this alleged conduct of Governor Blagojevich, what does it say that this happened despite the cautionary tale of George Ryan?

MR. FITZGERALD: I just — I think it tells us certainly — you know, I don’t want to jump ahead of things. Again, the governor’s presumed innocent. (Another diplomatic premise challenge. Fitzgerald could have prefaced his response with: “Your question is inappropriate based on timing.”)

Q Are you able to tell us if, in the Tribune scenario, it was the Tribune who came to you and said “We’re being extorted,” or you that went to the Tribune with this revelation?

MR. FITZGERALD: I don’t — that’s not set forth in the complaint. What we can tell you is that that was conversations we intercepted on the governor’s side, speaking to Mr. Harris about what they wanted to do…

Q So it’s conceivable, then, that the Tribune, at some level of management, was considering, or forced to consider, the governor’s alleged extortion.

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to speak for the Tribune or what happened, what message got there… So I’m not going to speculate as to…

(The following is an instructive exchange. The reporter asks about “a different matter”, an issue that is not on this day’s agenda. The reporter is trying to change the focus, whether intentional or not. Fitzgerald just says it’s not on focus and then stays in control invoking a position he has already established. Then he moves on to someone else, not taking a follow-up. Note the language that allows him to be in control.)

Q Mr. Fitzgerald, what does this say about Senator Durbin’s letter to the president requesting commutation of George Ryan’s sentence, which has only been a year of the six-and-a-half-year sentence that was imposed for the — for the crimes this office charged him with and convicted him of?

MR. FITZGERALD: And that’s a different matter. I told you the office doesn’t have a view on what happens in sort of Illinois government. We just don’t have a stake in that. To the extent the office has a view in the Ryan pardon, if we’re asked by the Department of Justice or the White House to express that view, we will do so privately. But we’re not going to — it’s inappropriate for me, on behalf of the office, to express a view where the power of pardon and commutation rests with the president. And it’s not our power — our power, and we do not make a practice of commenting to other branches of government, what they ought to do unless asked by them in private.

Yes?

Q I’ve got two questions. What does the law say about the appointment process of the U.S. Senate, you know, as it relates to the governor before his arrest? And then I have another question, is how could the appointment process of the U.S. Senate, you know, change now that, you know, the governor’s been arrested?

MR. FITZGERALD: And I’m not going to comment …I’m not going to comment on any proposed modifications.

Q Which advice would you give to anybody who would now take a senatorial appointment from Rod Blagojevich?

MR. FITZGERALD: Oh, I’m — I’m going to duck that one on — okay.

Yes, sir. (Why can Fitzgerald get away with ducking and moving on? Although unstated, the premise of the question is inappropriate and he knows that everyone in the room knows it, so he just moves on. If the reporter challenged him, Fitzgerald would give him the “we don’t do that” explanation. Since he’s given it once, he doesn’t use it. Some of the people I train worry that using this tactic would be rude. With the words he uses and the point having been previously established, Fitzgerald isn’t rude.)

Q We understand the governor was taken to the FBI headquarters this morning.

MR. FITZGERALD: Yes.

Q Was he interviewed there? And did he make any kind of a statement?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not allowed to comment on whether anyone made a statement, but he was arrested and taken to the FBI.

Q Was he interviewed?

MR. FITZGERALD: I don’t think I – (Fitzgerald appeals for advice to one of his staff out of camera. So for those who think they have to know everything or else someone might think them incompetent, it’s not necessarily so. Here’s a very confident, in-command Fitzgerald, appropriately seeking counsel from one of his lawyers. No worries.)

Q (Off mike.)

MR. FITZGERALD: I don’t know if I can comment on whether we attempted an interview under the rules. I can’t comment on that.

Q Mr. Fitzgerald, would you make clear just something about the timing here? When the Tribune ran its story a few days ago revealing that the governor was being taped, would you explain — and I think some of this is laid out in the complaint — did further taping take place, or did that essentially terminate your ability to listen in?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, what I would say is to back up, and to the extent that there have been articles I’m not confirming or denying the accuracy of the articles. You can compare them against what happened.

I will say this…

Q Patrick, you are always very careful to separate politics and law enforcement. …How about weighing in on a matter of civic responsibility?

MR. FITZGERALD: I think there’s enough people here who can weigh in on their opinions about things, and the citizens can weigh in with their opinions.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI do not have an opinion on what actions the legislature ought take. The only opinion we’ll express is that we hope that people with relevant information will come forward and cooperate with us.

Q You’re — you live here in Chicago. Do you trust this governor to make a good choice for the Senate, which is so important?

MR. FITZGERALD: I am a citizen of Illinois, and I do have opinions and beliefs. And what they are, are for me, because when I speak, I speak on behalf of that seal, and that seal has no opinion on that matter.

And in the back? Yes? And then you.

Q (Off mike) — confirmed so many investigations — (off mike) — be additional counts added against these defendants and others?

MR. FITZGERALD: What we’ll simply say is the investigation continues. We’re not going to predict that other charges will or will not be filed.

Yes?

Q You spoke before about if Senator — you didn’t know — no awareness that Senator or President-elect Barack Obama knew about this. So is it safe to say he has not been briefed? And can you also tell us if any phone calls were made to President-elect Obama that you intercepted, or to Rahm Emanuel?

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay. I’m not going to go down anything that’s not in the complaint.

And what I simply said before is, I’m not going to — I have enough trouble speaking for myself. I’m not going to try and speak in the voice of a president or a president-elect.

So I simply pointed out…. And that’s all I can say.

(Fitzgerald is not afraid of the media. He is prepared to manage the interactions. The questions are getting more speculative rather than fact seeking. Here’s a light exchange.)

Q What will be your position — what will be your position at this afternoon’s hearing on detention or bond for the governor?

MR. FITZGERALD: I don’t expect there’s going to be a contentious issue about bond, but we’ll — Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan will be handling that proceeding. I think she can hear the specifics from us for the first time in court. But –

Q You won’t oppose — (off mike).

MR. FITZGERALD: I think Judge Nolan should hear what our position is, not through your excellent reporting but through our (assistants/assistance ?) telling him what it is.

Q How would you categorize this — (off mike) — compared to other things that you’ve seen? How would you categorize it?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to go beyond saying that just we — the conduct we think is appalling. I’m not going to do a comparative to other cases, but I just think it’s very, very disturbing that we have these pay-to-play allegations going on for years, and that they picked up steam after a conviction, they picked up steam after an ethics-in-government act, and that it would go so far as to taint the process by which the governor and his inner circle of advisers were choosing someone to take a seat in the United States Senate to represent Illinois.

Q (Off mike) — said that Senate candidate number five took herself out of the running after this was made apparent to her? Can we gather that is Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to confirm or deny any names with numbers. I just can’t.

Q You do name the governor’s wife in this. And you quote her in the charges. Can you recount for us what she said and what her role was as it’s laid out in the charge?

MR. FITZGERALD: Since I don’t — (inaudible) — won’t quote it accurately, there’s a paragraph, I believe, … I think I’ll just leave you to looking at the complaint and –

Q If she what the governor has been charged with, why wouldn’t she be charged if she’s saying the same thing?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to comment on anyone not charged. I’ll simply say ….

Q Mr. Fitzgerald, I have a question….

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, you hit on two questions. One is a legal distinction.

Q Mr. Fitzgerald?

MR. FITZGERALD: Yes?

Q Sir, just to be crystal-clear on this point, you’re not aware of any conversation, then, that took place between the governor and any member of Barack Obama’s transition team at all?

MR. FITZGERALD: And what I simply said is you can read the complaint. I’m not going to sit here with a 76-page complaint and parse through it. You know, that’s all we’re alleging. And I’m just — I’m not going to start going down and saying, “Did anyone ever talk to anyone?” You can read what we allege in the complaint. It’s pretty detailed. Look in the 76 pages, and if you don’t see it, it’s not there.

Q In the briefings that President-elect Obama has had over the past weeks with various government departments here, would it be possible for him to have been briefed on what was going on here with regard to this investigation?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to comment on that. I’m not the briefer. I’m not at those meetings. But I would simply say that this was very close-hold in Washington, and on a need-to-know basis. So I’m — but I’m not going to — I’m not the briefer, so I’m not going to represent what happens. But — I’ll leave it at that.

Q Pat?

Q Is there anything –

Q Will you quantify the number of calls that you’ve gotten –

(At this point the questions are getting out of control and Fitzgerald reasserts authority with clear direction – it gives the media direction and they settle down. This kind of control can be asserted one-on-one just as well as in a group.)

MR. FITZGERALD: Sorry? Okay. After Carol (sp), we’ll go do a ring around the back.

Q Pat, one of the things I think that people out there look at is, the governor’s known he’s been under investigation for several years now, and yet he would still engage, allegedly, in this kind of activity. What does it say about the audacity of the governor to do this while he’s under investigation and knows it?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’ll leave that for you to draw your own conclusions. It’s a pretty audacious set of conversations set forth in the complaint, in the circumstances.

In the back? Yes.

Q Which union did the governor solicit in exchange for the Senate appointment?

MR. FITZGERALD: I think it’s laid out in the complaint that it’s …and again, I’m not going to describe more than is in the complaint –

Anyone else in the back?

Q Can the FBI comment on at all on the search warrant that was executed for the governor’s office at the Thompson Center?

MR. FITZGERALD: That’s — I don’t think it’s the governor’s office at the Thompson Center. There’s a search warrant — can we say where? (Fitzgerald again defers to his staff and doesn’t proceed with his answer without guidance.)

MR. FITZGERALD: It’s at the office of Deputy Governor — a deputy governor. And there’s a search warrant being executed at the Friends of Blagojevich campaign headquarters.

Q Right now?

Q Can I ask you one, Pat?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, one more. I just want to get the — I want to make sure –

Q Can you help me with a matter of law, a question of law…?

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay, and I’m not going to get into hypotheticals that you’ll abstract, from the complaint, and start going down that road.

Q I was just wondering, is — I haven’t read the full complaint either — is Rezko going to be testifying regarding this case at all? (Off mike.)

MR. FITZGERALD: I think there’s a discussion of Mr. Rezko, in a footnote, somewhere in the complaint. And I couldn’t tell you the footnote number. But if you look there, there’s a succinct summary of his status, in that footnote, that I won’t try to repeat out loud.

And yes. Who’s next?

Q If a Tribune executive did agree to fire somebody on the editorial board, as an exchange for this, would it be criminal behavior? And can you characterize at all how far the Tribune plot went?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to say how far the Tribune plot went, other than the person who was identified, as the person to be fired, was not fired and still works there today….We don’t go beyond that. I’m not going to opine …

Q Pat, you spoke very directly about why the indictment had to come now.

(Fitzgerald makes sure the reporters have their facts straight in this premise challenge.)

MR. FITZGERALD: First of all, there’s not an indictment, I realize. It’s a complaint. So I don’t want people to understand it’s an indictment. We’ve filed a criminal complaint.

Q State lawmakers said this morning they’d like to see impeachment proceedings within — (off mike) — January. Now, I understand impeachment is somewhat — something like a trial. Would you assist them in any sense or with any of the evidence you’ve prepared — (off mike)?

MR. FITZGERALD: I thought about a lot of things this morning. That one hasn’t come up yet. And I’m not going to take it off the top of my head and spring. So we’ll go from there.

STAFF: Thank you very, much folks.

END. (Yes, the end of an hour-long masterful performance of managing the interaction with a room full of reporters. The language of control and premise challenge that Patrick Fitzgerald used is the type of language that we use each and everyday in our interactions with colleagues, clients, suppliers, family and friends. Fitzgerald has shown that it is equally appropriate and extremely useful in controlling a multi-lateral media interview. I know it works in one-on-one interviews as well. )