Don’t Take the Bait

AP – Tiger Woods pauses during a press conference.
AP – Tiger Woods pauses during a press conference.

Two recent news stories reminded me of a good lesson for people facing critical questioning from the media: don’t take the bait.

We expect the media to ask tough, fair questions. It’s their job and that’s what they should do. But sometimes journalists ask questions that go too far or try and bait the interview subject into an uncomfortable situation.

The first story involves Tiger Woods. A reporter at a press conference in Ireland asked him if all his indiscretions has been “worth it” since it cost him his marriage and endorsements.

Obviously, the reporter’s goal is to get him to go ballistic so they can splatter the story all over the British tabloids.

Tiger didn’t take the bait. Woods handled it well, saying “I think you’re looking too deep into this,” and followed up with a very sharp “thank you.”

The second story comes from Sports Illustrated. It’s a Gary Smith article on the Gulf oil spill (yes, an oil spill story in SI, and well worth reading). Smith went on an oily field trip with BP’s crisis commander Bob Dudley, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and a couple of network TV crews.

They wade into a large pool of oil, survey the damage and talk about having to see it to really get a feel for the damage that has been done.

Smith describes the scene after that:

Kerry Sanders, the NBC correspondent, wanted more. “Look over your shoulder,” Sanders ordered Dudley , camera rolling. “What do you see?”

“It’s devastating … it’s very emotional.”

"This is oil from right here." - BP’s crisis commander Bob Dudley
"This is oil from right here." - BP’s crisis commander Bob Dudley

Not enough. “Can we see it on your hands,” demanded Sanders, “and can you tell us what it is?”

Dudley, on a contrition mission, scooped up the goo and gave NBC its money shot, blood on his hands. “This is oil from right here,” he recited dully.

Not enough. From the railing of a boat that the group had climbed aboard, CBS’s Harry Smith pointed to a phalanx of orange, fist-sized tar balls. “This is your oil,” declared Harry. “Do you feel guilty?”

Dudley, hangdog but litigation-leery: “I just feel sad.”

Dudley took the bait from Sanders and shoved his hands in the oil when asked. With BP’s lack of PR preparedness, Sanders probably could have had him in the oil floating on a raft sipping a cocktail – “now hold your drink in one hand and that dead bird in the other.”

Dudley should have gone out there and stuck with professional, responsible answers and not played into the hands of TV reporters trying to manufacture a “moment” for their stories.

I’m not trying to defend Tiger Woods or BP. The point is that anyone in the media spotlight better be able to recognize when the bait is tossed in front of them and know how to avoid it.