Ben Carson Adviser Kills Interview In Progress: "This Is Over"
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Republican presidential candidate running a close second to Donald Trump, recently sat down for an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Tapper pressed Carson about a comment he made last week regarding Muslims: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”
Despite the apparent clarity of his statement, Carson insisted it had been misconstrued. But after several minutes of questioning on the matter, Carson adviser Armstrong Williams, who was off-camera, said, “This interview is over.”
That brief moment leads to a question: When is it a good idea for PR professionals to cut off an interview midstream?
Fast forward to the end of this clip to hear Armstrong end the interview.
The guiding rule I’d offer when considering whether or not to interrupt an interview in progress is to assess which of these two options is worse:
1. Interrupting, which risks making it look like your principal is incapable of answering the question or dodging it altogether. That can make the story bigger than it otherwise would have been, since the media will report on the staffer’s interjection.
2. Not interrupting, which risks allowing the principal to be damaged by ongoing questioning and offering flatfooted, incorrect, unpopular, defensive, or hostile answers.
In this case, Armstrong’s interruption didn’t make his principal look bad. Although several news outlets noted the interjection, I’m not sure many of Carson’s supporters will mind that he cut off an interview with a representative of the much-derided “mainstream media.” Plus, according to the Washington Examiner, CNN had exceeded its agreed-upon time limit.
“The interview was cut abruptly by a staffer because CNN way overshot their time allotment and were frankly abusing our courtesy,” said Doug Watts, Carson’s communications director.
A source at CNN told the Washington Examiner media desk that it was unclear at the time why the interview ended so abruptly. The source did say, however, that the agreed upon time limit for the interview was 15 minutes but that it lasted for nearly 20.
Still, it’s not uncommon for news interviews to go longer than negotiated (which isn’t a sign of “abusing” the guest’s courtesy), and my general preference is to prepare spokespersons to handle it without needing to be “saved” by a staffer.
This is where media training is particularly useful—a more skilled politician than Carson could have effectively closed the door on this line of questioning sooner. Tapper’s questions on the matter were predictable and answerable.
To see an example of a staff interruption that didn’t go as well as this one, here’s a 2004 classic clip of Secretary of State Colin Powell on Meet the Press with Tim Russert.
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As you noted, a more skilled politician could have ended the interview him/herself. I don’t think it’s ever appropriate for a PR person to interrupt a live interview. PR professionals are not police, and should resist the urge to ride in to rescue their clients. If they haven’t prepped their client on how to effectively deal with overly aggressive interviewers or those who choose to disrespect their “courtesy,” particularly in the heated combat of politics, then they have failed in their role. If their clients can’t seem to find a way to take their advice for dealing with such situations, then the PR pro needs to 1) accept that, or 2) dump the client. The time to deal with a reporter who is abusing journalistic privilege is after the interview, when the two media pros can discuss as pointedly as they need to what the expectations were and what went wrong.