Staying composed during contentious TV interviews

Robert Novak's meltdown on CNN's Inside Politics was predictable, perhaps.

Robert Novak's meltdown on CNN's Inside Politics was predictable, perhaps.

After all, he's spent the past two years fending off growing public criticism for his role in the Valerie Plame leak investigation and has watched helplessly from the sidelines as his media brethren have turned an increasingly scornful eye at his silence.

If there's one thing old-school reporters like Novak can't stand, it's being part of a story they're supposed to be covering.

But when he swore after James Carville's mild provocations and stormed off the set, it was a complete surprise. I ought to know. I used to be Novak's producer.

Within hours of his outburst, more than 300 news stories - from as far away as Russia, India, and South Africa - had already appeared about the incident. With each story, you could faintly hear the echo of liberal commentators uncorking bottles of champagne. Media darling Jon Stewart went so far as to rub his nipples with delight on The Daily Show.

It's an unsurprising case of schadenfreude, perhaps, because Novak has spent years mocking politicians who self-destruct on camera. In early 2004, for example, he wrote about Howard Dean that, "Being overworked is a poor excuse for Dean's gaffes."

Novak just had his Dean scream moment.

He's not alone.

Today, as a full-time media trainer, I see spokespeople from across the nation embarrassing themselves unnecessarily. One recent client, a high-ranking city official, also ripped off his lapel microphone and stormed out of an interview, only to see the clip used for seven straight days on the local news.

But the job of a journalist - particularly a TV journalist - is to elicit drama. By pairing conservative versus liberal, the entire construct of the show is intended to create a fiery debate, excluding most of the nuanced views that could lead to a thoughtful conversation.

Although CNN's Crossfire might officially be canceled, the left-right debate format is here to stay. I often advise clients to avoid appearing on those programs altogether and in-stead seek a more substantive venue on which to appear.

In many other cases, like that of the city official, viewers will never see the questions posed by the reporter. These "bite" interviews allow a reporter to ask leading, obnoxious, and downright insulting questions, but if the spokesperson loses control and gets angry, that's all viewers will ever see.

So how can a high-profile spokesperson stay in control during an interview?

First, remember the "seven second stray." Being on message most of the time isn't good enough. Those seven seconds during an hour-long interview when you respond angrily or

say something flip or sarcastic are guaranteed to be included in the aired segment, and likely will be played over and over again. Novak's entire incident lasted just 11 seconds.

Second, think ahead about what your response will be to unexpected antagonistic comments. Practice with someone who knows you well and ask him or her to criticize you in a way that will get under your skin. Stay calm during your response, and choose your words carefully. It might make for an awkward dinner, but the practice will help prevent self-immolation when you're on live television.

Third, monitor your nonverbals. Studies show that more than half of the way people perceive you is based not on what you say (or don't say), but on how you look. If you successfully restrain yourself from making a sarcastic remark but your eyes, face, or body betray your true feelings, viewers will notice.

Novak's fate is still uncertain. But just like Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flash, President Clinton's finger wag, and the Dean Scream, Novak's walk-off is destined to become a remembered pop culture moment.

  • Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media training and media relations firm. He was formerly Novak's producer for CNN's The Capital Gang.

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