Staying in the Present: Responding to Hypothetical Questions in a Media Interview

Staying in the Present: Responding to Hypothetical Questions in a Media Interview

You have a one in five chance you’ll get asked a hypothetical question in a media interview. Let Media Trainer Russ Rhea show you how to answer them correctly.


Russ Rhea: In a media interview, reporters have a tendency to ask about negative things in the past or try to take you into the future to speculate on things. Whether you’re a spokesperson or in a role to make sure your spokesperson is ready, remember that both of these question types are dangerous and you need to be careful responding.

Hi, I’m Russ Rhea. For hypothetical questions that call for speculation, I have an important bit of advice. Remember these words: stay in the present.

Here’s an example where someone took the bait with a hypothetical question.

This is a clip from an interview with Los Angeles Lakers player D’Angelo Russell. He was in the news awhile back for secretly videotaping his teammate admitting that he cheated on his famous fiancée and then that video went viral, erupting into a big scandal. There was a lot of backlash among his teammates and he was asked in an interview what he’d do if they got physical with him over it.

(Video Clip)

Reporter: What do you say to those who say if this wouldn’t happened in their day, there would’ve been some locker room enforcement? Like someone would get physical with you, get beat up?

D’Angelo Russell: I’d get physical back. There’s a point where you try to solve it the right way with words. But then there’s a sign of disrespect.

Russ Rhea: Guess what the headline became in news coverage? “Russell says he’d get physical back with his teammates over video scandal.“ That’s the kind of thing that happens when you give a direct answer to a hypothetical question.

The Predictive Media Network is the first research-based media training model and gives spokespeople for any organization a predictable pattern to better prepare for any media encounter.

We analyzed more than three-thousand interviews to better help spokespeople know the types of questions to expect when they’re facing questions.

Our research shows you have about a one in five chance you’ll get asked a hypothetical question in an interview.

Back to our “stay in the present” rule when it comes to hypotheticals and questions trying to get you to talk about negative things in the past. When you get these types of question, don’t be focused on the premise of the question but instead discuss the positive things you’re doing right now that address the negative things involved with those questions. You’re going to sound like you’re answering but you won’t fall for the trap of saying something negative that will dominate the story.

If D’Angelo Russell would’ve “stayed in the present” with the hypothetical about getting physical with his teammates, he could’ve responded with something like “Right now, I’ve got a lot of work to do with earning back the trust of my teammates. I messed up and I’ve apologized for it. I hope they’ll forgive me and move on.” A response like that would’ve either been a non-story or resulted in the impression that Russell was trying to do right by his actions.

Here’s an example where a spokesperson did “stay in the present” with a hypothetical question. He didn’t come out on the winning end of the election but Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook did a good job responding to a hypothetical about Clinton’s possible future relationship with the FBI director.

Reporter: If Hillary Clinton is elected, I wonder what you expect their working relationship to be, particularly if the investigation remains open at that point?

(Audio clip)

Robby Mook: I don’t want to speculate on that, I’m still focused on getting to election day. As you’ve said, we’re still concerned all of these days later, there still isn’t a good explanation.

Russ Rhea: With hypotheticals, it’s effective to just say you’re not going to speculate and you’re focused on what’s important right now.

NFL quarterback Tom Brady had a lot of fun simply calling out a reporter on a hypothetical question.

(Video Clip)

Reporter: If you had an MVP vote, who would you give it to?

Tom Brady: I don’t have that vote.

Reporter: If you did though?

Tom Brady: That’s a hypothetical. We don’t answer hypothetical questions at the Patriots. Bellichick would stand up here and say, you moron, why would you answer a hypothetical question like that.

Russ Rhea: Hypothetical questions are a trap that can lead to negative comments that can dominate a story. If you get one, remember to “stay in the present.”

Thanks for watching.