If you watch the news for any period of time, you will likely run into someone being interviewed who gets a bit angry about questions being asked.  Sometimes you might even see someone walk out of an interview after a particular question.  The most common reason for this is that they have been asked an off-limits question.  But what are these and how should you handle one if you are asked?

What is an off-limits question?

The trouble with the extreme reaction of walking out of an interview or losing your temper due to a question is that the only thing people remember is that incident.  None of what was said before, no matter how brilliant, will lodge in the memory – only the dramatic end to things.

Off-limits questions are a bit like being ‘off the record’ in the sense that they don’t really exist for modern media.  That’s why it is important to always act as if you are on the record when speaking to someone – if a journalist thinks that the answer you gave to an off the record question is relevant, there’s a good chance they will use it.

In fact, sometimes by saying that something is off limits or off the record, you are instead highlighting this particular fact or topic and it will gain more interest than if you hadn’t prefaced it and simply been cautious.  It is like a red warning sign to a journalist that there is something here of interest.

How to handle off limit questions

The best tactic is to learn how to handle these off-limits questions and make sure they don’t become the story in place of the real message you are trying to get across.  And at all costs, avoid walking out of an interview or losing your temper!

One of the best ways to handle it is defusing the situation.  Acknowledging there are different opinions for example and then moving onto the core topic you are talking about is one way to stop questions about a debate or argument you have been involved with.  And while this kind of answer is predictable, it is surprisingly effective because it leaves the journalist less room to make the question into the central issue.

Preparing ahead for what these off-limits questions might be is another good plan.  Look back at controversies in your history and think about how to frame questions about them in this manner.  Because journalists will do research and if they think they can raise an awkward issue, they will.

Preparing the journalist

While highlighting these off-limit questions isn’t the best idea, this doesn’t mean you can chat with the journalist beforehand about the scope and topic of the interview.  Whether you do this yourself or use a spokesperson to handle it, it is a good idea to find out what they want to know and make sure that it is what you want to talk about.  That way you have a little more control over the conversation and a lower chance of an unexpected question.

Hawkeye are experts in the media training and how to handle media questions and scrutiny. For a bespoke look at how you can prepare your team to deal with media questions contact us today.