How to not get killed in a press interview like Tumblr

UntitledIf you want to see a CEO experience a deer-in-the-headlights moment, watch this video of Tumblr CEO David Karp get killed by a sharp reporter on Squawk Box.

It’s painful. (And his mention of the Bill of Rights, while using wording of the Declaration of Independence… eeesh.)

The fault lay in his prep work, which was shoddy.  Going on a show like Squawk Box is no light thing. This is a show whose whole premise is the art of the argument.

In other words, when you’re going to show up at a gunfight, don’t bring a knife. Bring a gun.

Now, I empathize with him. Many years ago, I was one of a bunch of young VPs at a hot software company (Quarterdeck, now Symantec). Our PR exec was (understandably) very worried about our dealings with the press.  One day, I remember her mentioning that we were going to get media coaching, but didn’t pay much attention to it.

A week later, I had just gotten into my office early in the morning, when the whole room exploded in light. There was a reporter with a cameraman barging into my office.

Now, if you haven’t experienced this kind of attack reporting, it’s very unnerving. So I was immediately on the defensive.

“Mr. Eckelberry,” the reporter said, aggressively. “What is your comment on the fact that your software is being used right now by the government of Bosnia to manage the ethinic killings of thousands of people?”


Totally taken by surprise, I gave some mumbled reply, something to the effect that “we can’t be responsible for how our software gets used.”

Then the PR exec walked in and told me I had failed the first part of media coaching. The reporter, who, it turned out, was actually one of the media coaches, was kind about it.  But the rest of the day was spent getting drilled cold on handling the press. And I’ve been working with the press ever since, including stints on national television, radio and various print media. I’ve had varying degrees of success, but at least I know when I’ve made a mistake.

So I had my own “deer-in-the-headlights” moment.

But that doesn’t excuse what happened. His mistake was a) poor preparation and b) poor coaching (which would include heavy amounts of drilling for every type of question asked). In fact, I might look to his PR agency more than I’d blame him.

There are some pointers to remember to avoid getting caught like David Karp.

–  Recognize that the normal rules of communication in a combative situation like this don’t apply. This is a fencing match, not a light dinner conversation with a group of friends in San Francisco.

–  Always have an “island” you can retreat to. This is a safe place, that you know cold. It is a positive response crafted as a response to an uncomfortble situation or a negative attack. Reporter attacks, you don’t know what to do, retreat to the safe place. Great politicians are masters of this. You may disagree with the tactic, but when you’re under the hot lights and a camera, you’ll be grateful to have this advice.

Reporter: “Your product is used in destroying the internet!” Answer: “We condemn any practice that would affect the rights and freedoms of individuals…” and then pivot to the “island”: “Our software is used for productive purposes by millions of people all over the world to create online communities that foster a better life…”

– Use verbal pauses to give you time. When you’re under the spotlight, a second feels like an eternity. But a casual “umm” is not noticed by the viewer. It will give you time to craft your response. It will also make you feel a lot less nervous.

– Don’t get trapped in the reporter’s language. General Norman Schwarzkopf was brilliant with the press. When asked if he was a hawk or a dove, he answered “I am an owl”. Genius response, but then, he was a pro. It takes time to learn how to think on your feet like this.

– Nature abhors a vacuum, so you must have facts to fill the vacuum. This is one thing that is misunderstood by a lot of execs, but it’s incredibly important.

Have facts at your fingertips, and counter negativity with actual information. “I hear you’re working with the NSA to create a backdoor for them to eavesdrop on citizens”.  Answer: “That is incorrect. Our software has gone through a rigorous audit by 17 different security organizations. In fact, there’s a letter I can point you to…”.  You can’t just say “no”. You must fill the vacuum.

–  Crises: If you screw up, take full responsibility, apologize, explain the steps you are doing to make sure it never happens again (and then do those steps).

I’ve had a few crises in my life. I had a news story blow up massively in my face once when it was found that our security software was mis-labeling an innocent component installed on Samsung laptops as malware. This blew up all over the internet, with claims that “Samsung was shipping malware”. Except: They were innocent. I did the only thing I could do — we found out it was a false positive, and I immediately issued a complete mea culpa with a plan on how to fix it.

And in a crisis, don’t ever say “no comment”. Say things like “We are aggressively reviewing the situation and will have a statement as soon as we have all of the facts”. Anything “no comment”.

Realize the court of public opinion is critical, and delays in response are deadly. The lawyers may be advising one thing, but lawyers aren’t trained in PR. Act fast, act decisively, act right, and the crisis will blow over.

Anyway, there is much more to be said about dealing with the media. The key thing to remember is preparation.

Most of the time, dealing with the press can be quite pleasant (especially trade press) and one doesn’t need to be in a hyper-defensive posture. But for those cases when you’re going to be attacked, be ready. As we used to say in the Boy Scouts, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best”.

David, are you listening?


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