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Media Mastery Fundamentals IV — Bridging & Flaggin

BY IN BLOG On 30-04-2009

The last installment of The Fundamentals dealt with your interview agenda:  how to create one and how to make it come alive; how to make it compelling to the journalist.  First your have your ideas — the message points — and then your craft the Grabbers that turn the ideas into soundbites or pull quotes.

But how do you get to your agenda if the reporter doesn’t ask you the right questions?  What if she asks you the WRONG questions; questions that don’t afford you an easy path to your agenda?

You can’t do what Lyndon Johnson and Henry Kissinger used to do.  When Johnson was President and when Kissinger was Nixon’s Secretary of State, they would say to a reporter: “No, no.  You should be asking me about…..” and then suggest a question.  Today, not even a president would attempt that sort of redirection, even after hearing a truly off-point question.

Just as there are no dumb questions, only dumb answers, so there are no wrong questions, only wrong answers.  In many cases, you can use an off-point, or even hostile, question to get to your agenda.  You do it by bridging.  Bridging is a four-step process, which is illustrated in the diagram BridgeGraphicwhich I copied from a recent media-training workshop slide show:

Let’s go over those steps, using a hypothetical scenario. You are the president of the United States and you are sitting down with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.”   You’ve come into the interview with four agenda points.  One of them is: The recession is no excuse for postponing action on global climate change; quite the contrary, confronting the issue head-on will stimulate innovation, enhance America’s technology lead and supply 150,000 new jobs.   A grabber for this might be: “There is a silver lining to the carbon cloud.”

(Side Note: For purposes of this illustration I made up a number for the jobs, but a specific, accurate number will be more effective than saying “many” or “a lot of” new jobs.  To some readers and listeners, “many” might be 15,000.  To others, it might be a million.  Using the specific is always preferable to using a general term).

Now back to your “60 Minutes” interview, Mr. President. Steve Kroft doesn’t do you the favor of asking about climate change.  Instead he asks questions about other matters.  You, as President, have gone through extensive media training and know you’re going to have to use one of Kroft’s other questions to get the interview on track to your agenda.  So you bridge when he asks: “Mr. President, there seems to be growing populist resentment against the automobile company bailouts.”

Okay, how do you get from car companies to global warming?

Step One, acknowledge:  “Yes, Steve, there is.  And it’s understandable.  People see these rescue plans as rewarding bad behavior: following the poor business model of incurring a lot of debt and building fuel-inefficient and polluting cars and SUVs.”

Step Two, bridge: “But when the car companies emerge from this, they are going to be leaner, more efficient and their cars will become part of the solution, not part of the problem. The new cars they build will pollute less, contribute less to global climate change.”

Step Three, message point and grabber: “This is another example of an opportunity in a challenge and why we should not — indeed — must not delay tackling climate change.  The silver lining to the carbon dioxide cloud is that overcoming the problem now will stimulate innovation, enhance America’s technology lead and create 150,000 new jobs.”

Step Four, shut up:  You stop there.  You don’t then go back and revisit the car companies.  To do so invites a follow-up on automobiles.  To stop at “150,000 new jobs,” invites a follow-up on the jobs or on global climate change.

Shorter forms of acknowledging and bridging are even better.  A question you can’t answer is a perfect springboard for diving into an agenda point.

Acknowledge: “I don’t know.  I can find out for you.”

Bridge: “But what I do know is….”

Message Point: Deliver your message, illustrated with a compelling Grabber.

Shut up: Don’t go back and say, “As I say, I don’t know about the first, so I’ll find out for you….”

Here’s an example of a missed opportunity from the 2008 Presidential campaign:  Sen. John McCain was asked how many homes he owns.  His answer was, “I think — I’ll have my staff get to you.  It’s condominiums where — I’ll have them get to you.”   The correct answer was either four or seven, depending on how one counted investment properties the senator and his wife owned.

Using our bridging technique, he might have done this:

Acknowledge:  “You’d think that’s an easy question, but it’s not, because in addition to the homes we live in in Washington and Arizona, Cindy and I have some investment properties. The number of homes we actually live in is X.” (Four is the likely number: two vacation spots in addition to the Washington and Arizona properties.)

Bridge: “But what I can tell you is that….”

Message: Here he could have inserted any number of his message points, although an economic subject would have been best to avoid what I call “segue whiplash.”

Segue whiplash is a transition that takes you so far from the original question that it is painfully obvious that you’ve just bridged.  The late Sen. Edward Kennedy inflicted severe segue whiplash on viewers of “Meet the Press” during an interview many, many years ago.  The senator was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and one of his strongest campaign message points favored instituting a prescription drug benefit under Medicare. (This was long before that benefit was created.) The question he was was asked, however, was whether or not he favored airline deregulation.  Here, in paraphrase, was his answer:

Acknowledge:  Yes, I favor airline deregulation, because it will save the public money.

Bridge: And they’re going to need that money as they grow older.

Message point:  Because our older citizens are having to make the painful choice between buying their prescription drugs and buying their food.  And that’s why I am for a prescription drug benefit under medicare.

THAT was segue whiplash.

 Flagging

Here’s another get-the-interview-back-on-track tactic: flagging.  Let’s say you’ve acknowledged, bridged and gotten lost.  Or let’s say you find yourself giving a excruciatingly long and meandering answer.  The solution is to raise a flag.  What’s a flag?  It’s an expression like, “The real point is….”  or “The most important thing to take away from this is…..”  or even, “The bottom line here is…..”  What you are saying, in effect, is, “Ignore everything I’ve said up to now, here comes the good stuff.”  (A flag MUST be followed by the good stuff, not more meandering. If you meander after you’ve flagged, you’ve tossed away your life vest and are adrift.)  Flagging is an inelegant ladder and should be used if you’ve dug yourself into a deep hole and need to climb out.  But it’s a lot more elegant that blathering on endlessly or dribbling off hesitatingly into an inconclusive silence.

 


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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.

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