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How to PR: what is bridging in media training?

What is bridging?

Bridging is a technique used by spokespeople to move from a (difficult) question to a prepared key message. This key message is usually related to the question but not necessarily an answer to the question.

Bridging is a common media training technique. It is used by spokespeople to reply to questions that they can't answer for some reason. This can be:

  •  A negatively framed question: "Why haven't you solved this problem?"
  • A question that the spokespersion genuinely can't answer: "How many lives were lost in this fire?"

How to bridge: the ABC(D) framework

The bridging technique is usually taught through the ABC(D) framework.

This framework teaches spokespeople to Acknowledge the question, Bridge to a preapproved key message, Control or Contribute, and - for advanced users - to Dangle a new topic.

  • A: Acknowledging the question is arguably the most important part of bridging. It shows the journalist that you understood the question and that you will answer it to the extent that you can answer it.
  • B: Bridging is the use of a phrase that signals the fact that you will change the scope of your answer. Very often, this is a phrase such as: "What is important here, is..." or "We shouldn't forget that...", "We have always said that..."
  • C: Control or Contribute: This is the part of the answer that follows the "bridge".
  • D: Dangle. An advanced technique in bridging. This is the technique of mentioning a very salient new subject in the answer to the journalist. The goal is that the journalist will recognize the salience and ask a follow up question about this new subject. A successful "dangle" can avoid difficult follow up questions from the journalist.

When to use bridging in media interviews: quite often

Bridging is useful at some point in most media interviews. It can be useful whenever you feel that a question in the interview is asked in a way that it will not permit you to explain the corporate position on a subject.

That said, it is most useful in cases where journalists ask very hard and probing questions, and you don't want to appear uninformed, uncommunicative or rude by replying "no comment" or "I can't answer that".

In fact, bridging is useful in any situation where it is important for you to explain clearly to the counterpart what your position is on a subject - whether in business or private life (Indeed, quite a few media trainees told us that bridging has served them well in arguments with teenagers and spouses. ). 

Common mistakes in bridging during media interviews

The most common mistake - and the most serious mistake - is to not acknowledge the question of the journalist.

This acknowledgement of the question requires a good deal of precision. Especially in the case of negative questions, acknowledgement shows that you take the question seriously, and that you admit that the question is legitimate.

Take the example: "Your oil company now says it's all about renewable energy. However, only last year you've been tapped on the fingers by a parliamentary commission for infractions on advertising regulation as well as lobbying for coal with misleading arguments. Why should we believe that you're all about renewables today?"

There is no way to avoid this bitter truth - and there is no way to avoid this question. The journalist will be primed to look for evasiveness - and by being evasive, you will raise the stakes.

The good thing is that journalists will also be happy quite quickly with an answer that is not evasive. And that will allow you to wade too deeply into the negativity.

If you do not acknowledge the question, you run the highest risk in media interviews, namely that the interview will be no longer about the subject of the interview - but about you. Some examples will show this. 

Case: bridging gone wrong

The following clip shows how bridging can go wrong, specifically when the interviewee does not acknowledge the question. Here’s what happened: Adobe CEO Narayen was in Australia for the opening of new Adobe offices, and gave some interviews to the local tech press. He was asked a question about the odd pricing for Adobe’s Creative Suite. (Adobe’s CS was about $ 1400 more expensive in Australia than in the US, despite being delivered over the internet, both in the US and Australia.) It’s not very logical, and hard to explain.

What is bridging in media training? It's not this:

In this case, Narayen bridged to his key messages about Adobe’s Creative Cloud – the cloud based alternative to the Creative Suite (the "Suite" is downloaded and installed on your computer). Narayen said that in his opinion, Creative Cloud was a great product offering great value. 

It's not clear what the Cloud's value has to do with the Suite's pricing. (In fact, as the tech blog Engadget pointed out at the time, the Cloud was also priced higher in Australia than in the US!)

It’s safe to say that this question should have been better prepared by the media team. Narayen should have had an answer to this question. In any case, to bridge three times in a row is clearly too often. In the end, Narayen had to be rescued by the Adobe media person.

I think this clip shows that there are a few guidelines that you should keep in mind about media training techniques:

1. Make sure that you’re prepared for the hard questions

Adobe should have been prepared for questions about its pricing. They – and a few other US tech companies - were already under investigation for it in Australia.

If only something like “Unfortunately, I can’t discuss Adobe pricing with you at this time. Does anyone else have any other questions?” or something. It’s still weak, but at least it’s something of an answer.

Probably the best answer given the circumstances - and the focus on Cloud - would have been: "We know there is a price difference, yes. But for us this pricing issue is no longer really relevant, because we're now focusing 100 percent on the Cloud." Content wise, this would be more or less the same answer as the CEO actually gave. But it would have prevented the blogger from asking the question again, simply because the question was acknowledged rather than brushed off. 

2. Use media training techniques as a last resort.

Blocking and bridging are for situations where you genuinely won’t or can’t answer the question. Journalists (and the audience) aren’t stupid. They know perfectly well when you’re just rattling off your talking points.

It’s condescending and a bit rude to try to ‘spin’ people like this. You assume that the other person is stupid enough to fall for it. It shows that you don't take them very seriously: 'Who is this pathetic little blogger asking me questions about our pricing?' Well, he’s someone with access to the internet, and his blog will shoot to the top of HackerNews tomorrow.

3. It’s okay to be interesting, and leave your talking points at home for this once

A client of mine was interviewed shortly after receiving media training about a very innocent subject, that he was knowledgeable about. It was an excellent opportunity to display some thought leadership. Unfortunately, he decided to try out his newly acquired media techniques in a ‘live’ situation. It's human to want try out your new ninja powers. So he said: ‘I didn’t really answer the question, but I bridged and gave the journalist our key messages’. The result was that he didn’t appear in the article, and that he is probably a bit burned with the journalist.

In these times when journalists have less time than before, they have no time or inclination to listen to boilerplate. If you try to spin them your boilerplate, they will drop you off their list of experts to call. So: make an effort to be genuinely interesting.
There are more elegant ways to incorporate your key messages than by reverting to bridges. And if there’s no room for your key messages, bad luck – try again some other time. Maybe the setting just didn’t call for it.
A friend of mine once told me about a couple he had visiting for dinner. The couple was involved in some multilevel marketing scheme (where people try to sell soap and other stuff to their friends and family). All the dinner long, they kept circling back to their little soap business. It was awkward, and not much fun, and no soap was bought that evening anyway. Don’t be that couple.

4. In extreme cases, badly using media training can kill your career

Using these kinds of techniques is also a sign of incredible weakness. If done badly, it will draw attention to your communication rather than to your message. This is almost always bad for your reputation, and even your career.
Remember when Dijsselbloem said that the Cyprus situation would become “a template” for other European banks in trouble? Those things usually follow a pattern: a politician says something in an interview, there’s headlines, the opposition is asking tough questions. The politician denies he ever said this (bad idea!). The tape of the interview appears somewhere.
The next question is usually “given his or her communication error, can person X still function?” When that dreaded question pops up, somebody will be fighting for his or her survival.
(To close: here's a clip of the same Narayen getting "media training", by the way):

Media training: it's all fun and games