The Fallacy of Ambush Interviews

Some media training consultants use ambush interviews at or near the start of training sessions. One or more participants are singled out and asked (but more often coerced) into participating in an interview at the start of the training—with minimum preparation or guidance. Theoretically, this demonstrates the value of being prepared at all times, although it seems to underscore a message that there may be a reporter lurking around any corner or under any rock.

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In real life, ambush interviews are extremely rare. When they have serious issues brewing, most organizations are aware that such issues could erupt at any time.

How many of us have attended meetings in which someone in the management group says, “I really hope reporters don’t get ahold of this”? If such a comment is ever made at a meeting, the organization should never be ambushed. It needs no other warning because it has, quite frankly, warned itself.

Realistically, any organization has 20 to 30 minutes to get its ducks in a row before facing journalists, even if a CNN news team is waiting at reception. I sat as a member of IABC’s international accreditation committee for 12 years. As part of the examination process, candidates were removed one at a time from the four-hour written exam, taken to a separate room and given a disaster of the day that always had a media relations component.

In every one of these cases, whether an e-coli outbreak or an environmental spill, candidates knew they had at least 30 minutes to prepare themselves and their spokespeople after the television news crew arrived. They needed to ensure the news crew wasn’t wandering the halls, but then could take some time to prepare themselves and/or their spokespeople.

Of course, if the organization is trying to hide from journalists and the outside world because its actions are indefensible, there is no need for media training in the first place. No amount of ambushing during training will persuade them to take responsibility for their actions or change their decision-making to make their actions more defensible in the future.

If you speak to people who have been ambushed in media training (and I have) and ask them about the experience, you’ll find that this tactic does not build confidence. More often than not, it has exactly the reverse effect. It has a negative impact on the person ambushed, and a similar impact on others in the training session. It works against the creation of a relatively safe environment that many adult educators believe is conducive to effective learning.

Research clearly shows that “adults learn best in an environment in which they feel safe and supported.” The use of ambush interviews creates neither a safe nor a supported learning environment.

During media training, it is often important to impress upon executives that speaking to journalists is not like speaking to anyone else. As famous Canadian journalist Allan Fotheringham once put it: “The only friend a journalist has is another journalist.” I believe there are better ways to demonstrate the dangers and pitfalls of being a spokesperson without belittling or potentially humiliating training participants.

Spokespeople need to be confident if they’re going to effectively represent (and subsequently protect) themselves and their organizations. Every aspect of training should be focused on demonstrating the potential challenges of dealing with journalists, while constantly building spokesperson confidence.

I believe ambush interviews build fear, not confidence. And that’s why I don’t use them in the media training program I offer, At Ease With the Media.

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Media training consultant Eri Bergman in Toronto
Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS is Canada's most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped thousands of spokespeople from six continents improve their confidence during exchanges with journalists. They learn to build strong working relationships with journalists, while using these exchanges to support business and communication objectives. Spokespeople become message efficient, not message driven.

Contact Eric if your spokespeople need assistance.