There was an interesting exchange at yesterday's press conference between President Bush and legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas that shows precisely how to handle an adversarial media moment. This was an ideal demonstration of how a press conference works to the advantage of anyone who’s even moderately versed in the art. For those who complain the press doesn't ask the tough questions, they don’t get much tougher than the one Thomas asked:
"Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, your Cabinet officers, former Cabinet officers, intelligence people and so forth -- but what's your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil, the quest for oil. It hasn't been Israel or anything else. What was it?"
Ms. Thomas was basically saying to the President, "We all know you lied about the reasons you went to war, now tell us the truth." You don't get much tougher questions than that, but President Bush came right back with a near-perfect response:
“I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- that I wanted war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect...No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true.”
Now, put aside your feelings about the war and look at this press conference objectively. The president didn’t call on Helen Thomas to change her mind--he called on her because he knew he'd get a tough question and because he knew he could respond in a forceful manner. He also rephrased her question in such a way that allowed him to control the dialogue to his favor. (Standriff's First Rule of Speaking--He who controls the mike controls the room!)
When you're facing negative media coverage, the strongest strategy is to formulate a solid message, face the press immediately, and restate every question so it works to your advantage.