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How to Avoid the TV Talk Show Bait

In the world of modern TV talk shows, civility is a forgotten art. The term “talk show” is probably not even apt; these shows are basically televised confrontations. It’s odd how many talk show guests still expect to be treated with a certain sense of decorum. That’s why PR firms should be wary about booking clients for talk show appearances; seated in front of a combative host, what you thought would be an opportunity for easy publicity can quickly turn into a public relations nightmare.

Just recently I read a column by a movie critic who expressed surprise that he was ambushed on Bill O’Reilly’s show. Pity the poor soul who feels they’ll be the one guest who doesn’t get attacked. But two  recent interviews impressed me; even when the guests were baited, they kept their cool.

The first example came on CNN’s Crossfire, the daily political show that pits the political right against the political left. The Crossfire hosts, whatever their politics, are experts at baiting guests into making stupid, sometimes controversial comments. They even bait the other hosts. Well-educated, media-savvy people in the political sphere go on Crossfire and end up sounding like idiots.

Kathy Sullivan, Chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, was the guest. Her opponent was Bruce Keough, Vice Chairman of the New Hampshire Bush/Cheney Campaign. Keough did an admirable job fending off Crossfire host Paul Begala’s questions about the economy in New Hampshire, pointing out that the state’s unemployment rate is lower now than during the Clinton administration.

Sullivan had a rougher time with interlocutor Tucker Carlson. But Carlson failed in his repeated attempts to make Sullivan lose her cool, judging by this excerpt from a transcript posted on CNN.com:

CARLSON: “Hold on. Let me finish my question as to why [President Bush] is running neck and neck with John Kerry at the moment. Now, my question is, if your campaign, the Kerry campaign, is being waged on behalf of the working people, the average person, the mill worker now out of work paying higher health care premiums, why nominate a guy who spent the last weekend on Nantucket kite-surfing? Do you even know what kite-surfing is?”

SULLIVAN: “I know what kite-surfing is.”

CARLSON: “What is it? Can you tell me? Because I don’t. It’s very expensive. I know that.”

SULLIVAN: “You know what really bothers me, is that you’re in New Hampshire to find out what the people of New Hampshire care about.”

CARLSON: “I’m asking you. You tell me.”

SULLIVAN: “No, you want – you’re up in New Hampshire, allegedly, because you want to know what issues the people of New Hampshire are interested in. Instead of doing that, though, you’re going to sit there and take potshots at John Kerry, who is a genuine American hero.”

CARLSON: “I’m asking you a question.”

SULLIVAN: “Let’s talk about the economy. You want to talk about the economy, you want to talk about the war in Iraq, let’s talk about the fact that reservists from my state have had their tours of duty extended twice now in Iraq. And that is the Bush legacy in New Hampshire. Let’s talk about that instead of talking about kite- surfing.”

CARLSON: “If you don’t want to answer the question.”

SULLIVAN: “What is kite-surfing, is that your question?”

CARLSON: “Yes. I just want to know.”

SULLIVAN: “You know what, Tucker?”

CARLSON: “So many rich people do it. I just want to know what it is.”

SULLIVAN: “It’s really sad. It is so sad that you – that you have a real opportunity as a Washington – respected Washington analyst to talk about the issues…”

CARLSON: “I’m trying to get you to help me, Kathy, but you’re not.”

SULLIVAN: “To talk about the issues that affect the ordinary American person. And, instead, you’re going to sit there, very cleverly, oh, let’s talk about kite-surfing. Oh, let’s do this. Let’s do that. That’s an embarrassment to yourself and to the people of this country, who want to talk about the issues.”

Sullivan was audibly angry during the exchange–usually not a good thing–while Carlson remained unperturbed. In this case, Sullivan actually did take the bait, but she stuck to her agenda, rather than letting Carlson change the course of the interview. When it became obvious that Carlson was intractable, Sullivan turned the tables. While her own attempt to bait Carlson failed, Sullivan ended the exchange with a resounding last word. She was obviously well-prepared to handle her rancorous hosts.

The second interview was on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, a discussion between the show’s titular host and Josh Quittner, editor of Business 2.0 magazine. Dobbs has long been on a crusade against American companies outsourcing jobs overseas. In more than one interview, he’s expertly baited guests thanks to a combination of the show’s time constraints–i.e., he gets the last word, usually contradicting the guest’s views–and simple out of context remarks.

Quittner’s magazine has essentially come out in favor of outsourcing as a business strategy; Business 2.0 decided to outsource a portion of a recent issue to overseas talent. From a transcript posted on CNN.com, compare this early exchange between Dobbs and Quittner and Dobbs’ final thought.

DOBBS: “OK, how did it work? Tell us. Did you save money? Was it a great result?”

QUITTNER: “Well, we did save money. It ended up costing us half as much as it normally would cost to put together that many pages of a magazine. That said, I wouldn’t say it was a resounding success. We probably wouldn’t do it again. The fact of the matter is, the journalism business is a very local business, and no amount of technology available right now can substitute for being in somebody’s face.”

—–

DOBBS: “It was great of you to be here, and we look forward to your next experiment. And if it has to do with outsourcing, we hope it’s as big a calamity.”

Dobbs puts words right in his guest’s mouth, calling the experiment a “calamity” when Quittner said it “[was not] a resounding success.” Dobbs misrepresented the results of the experiment, not even acknowledging that Quittner had said it saved the magazine money. Waiting until time was up to pass judgment, Dobbs gave Quittner no opportunity to respond. Quittner displayed amazing restraint, at no point changing his argument or backing down. The exchange was certainly not testy, but Dobbs set Quittner up to hang himself. Instead, Quittner stated his opinion and backed it up with solid reasoning, something that normally shuts-up intellectual bullies.

Public relations firms booking clients to appear on talk shows should take note of the way Sullivan and Quittner respectively handled their combative interviewers. Sullivan, instead of being baited into answering an off-topic question that had no good answer, returned the attack. In the process, she made her point, silencing her attacker. Quittner stuck by his guns and let the interviewer hang himself by misstating facts.

Public relations firms need to coach clients on remaining calm and collected during even the most heated media interview. (And what media interview could be more heated than a modern TV talk show?) Not ever client will have Sullivan’s success at turning the tables on their interviewer. PR firms should also be sure their clients have a firm command of the facts and figures related to the subject under discussion. As Quittner proved, an interviewer can only “spin” hard facts so far before looking foolish.

In the end, what’s important, is that these two guests got their points across and did so on their terms. That’s the impression, I suspect, they left with viewers. And, that’s what’s important when attempting to extend your public relations strategy to the dangerous world of the TV talk show.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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