Why a Journalist Might ask a Personal Question During an Interview
November 14, 2023

– And how to handle it if they do…

In our media training courses, we conduct role-play media interviews with the participants before giving them feedback and recommendations. These media interviews are realistic because all our media trainers are working journalists operating under strict NDA. This means that we’ll ask the questions that journalists will ask in the real world. Some of those questions might be personal.

Why do journalists ask personal questions?

There are several reasons for this. The first is that it ticks the “human” box. In our media coaching courses, we look at what makes a story and what journalists are looking for in a media interview. It’s a cliché, but the human element is high up there. This means that a journalist might be asking a spokesperson about an issue and, alongside the facts, figures, insights and other information they’re getting, they might also want to find out more about the emotional aspect of the subject matter. “How did you feel?” or “Why is this important to you?” are classic journalist’s questions.

We deliver media interview training to think tanks and academic institutions, and we often ask the researchers we’re training about why they are interested in an issue from a personal perspective. Quite often, they’re surprised by this question, but, as well as talking to them about why we’ve asked it, we show them how to handle it in a way that will enable them to get their message across and maintain control of the interview. One think tank staffer we provided media training for wanted to discuss a report she’d written about cycling in a sustainable transport context.

“Do you cycle?” our trainer asked. She looked surprised and then said she did – but not much. It could have been a very awkward situation, but with some guidance from our media coach about how to handle the question and what to include in the reply, she managed to turn it to her advantage and used her answer as a great example to back up her main message about the need for more cycle tracks in cities. As specialist media trainers for law firms, we’ve had the same situation arise, and we’ve managed to help the lawyers we provide media interview training for to turn a potential threat into an opportunity.

Another reason for journalists to ask personal questions is that they test for hypocrisy. One of the most famous examples is when Francis Maude, then a government minister, promoted volunteering as part of the Big Society initiative. “What volunteering do you do?” Eddie Mair asked him on the PM programme. Maude was floored. Had he and his media team really not anticipated this question? It seems amazing. We provide media training for elected officials from across the political spectrum, and this is the kind of tricky question that we work with their advisors to help them prepare for and manage effectively.

How to handle journalists’ personal questions

Journalists sometimes ask personal questions of their interviewees for the simple reason that those interviewees are not giving them enough. The answers are too short or lack any kind of substance, perhaps. As any of our journalist/media trainers will tell you, this is when journalists get frustrated and start throwing leftfield questions at the people they’re interviewing. We often find in our media training courses for lawyers, for instance, that the participants start off saying very little because, in keeping with their training, this is often the safest approach.

Although this might be the case when talking to a regulator, a judge or opposing counsel, it’s riskier when lawyers are doing interviews with journalists. We advise those taking part in our media coaching for lawyers to take the initiative during media interviews and to set out their stall, giving the journalist useful, relevant information. The chances are, therefore, that the journalist won’t have the time or the inclination to ask a difficult personal question.

One of the key messages in our media training courses, whoever the participants might be, is preparation. As you prepare with your PR consultants or media relations team for an interview with a journalist, you can anticipate any personal questions thrown at you. We provide media training for financial services companies, and one of our clients recently launched a credit card.

Role Play Media Interviews

“Do you use credit cards?” we asked a course participant. He looked uncomfortable and then admitted that he didn’t because he was wary of racking up debt. Fair enough, he was honest. However, anticipating this question and having an answer to it is essential before doing a media interview.

The use of personal questions by journalists, as our think tank example above shows, are not always a bad thing. They can be turned around and used to get across a key message. That’s why during our media training courses, we advise participants to think about whether they want to proactively introduce a personal example. We work a lot in the climate change space, providing Media Training for scientists, campaigners, financial services firms, and asset managers. In one course, during which campaigner urged people to insulate their homes and adopt more sustainable practices, we asked her what she’d done for her own home.

Working with her media relations people, we helped her identify a number of simple changes she had made to her home to improve its sustainability. When she proactively introduced this during a later role-play media interview, it worked very well to illustrate exactly the kind of improvements she was talking about and allowed her to come across as authentic and human.

Media Training Courses

A personal question asked by a journalist can be a risk, and it’s very easy for an interviewee to sound flustered, suspicious or simply thrown by it. However, as we advise in our media training courses for lawyers, financial services firms, and climate change organisations, among others, preparing for it and even being ready to take the initiative here can turn that personal question from a threat into a great opportunity.

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