Getting an interview with the media is often a time-intensive effort consisting of building a story with all the supporting material that you need in order to stand out to a busy reporter. But once you’ve got a reporter’s interest comes the most difficult part—telling the reporter your story, in your own words, so that you can be quoted without sounding unprepared.
Media training for company spokespersons is a critical, but often overlooked, part of many public relations plans—and the results are apparent: from hurried comments to long, rambling and pointless interviews. While there is no single way to prepare for every media interview that you will encounter, there are a few guidelines that I’ve found to be true among the many individuals that I have provided with one-on-one media training.
One thing that you should always remember is that an interview is not a conversation. I know it may seem like one—you’re sitting on the phone or across the table with an industry reporter. She’s smiling, nodding, asking you questions and taking notes. She asks your opinions about the story she’s covering, your company and your competition. But, unlike a conversation, this interview will appear in print. Everything that you say, or don’t say, can have an impact in the story.
It’s not that reporters are “out to get you.” In most cases they just want a good story to take back to their publications. But, if you treat an interview like a casual conversation, your story will appear the same way—pieces of information intertwined with bits of gossip and opinion.
Let’s take a look at a few simple do’s and don’ts for media interviews that will keep you focused on your message and in control during a media interview.
• Turn off your mobile or handheld. I heard a good story once that I pass along now like a bit of urban legend when I provide media training. A company CEO was in the middle of his three minutes of fame on a cable news program, when suddenly his cell phone buzzed on his hip, momentarily throwing him off his topic. He quickly regained composure only to have his mobile go off again a few moments later. Once he was off the program, he checked to see who was interrupting him, surprised to see his mother-in-law’s phone number. He quickly called her to see if everything was alright. She breathlessly told him, “I just saw you on TV.” Nothing throws you off a good interview like a buzzing cell phone or
beeping handheld. Turn them off.
• Respect reporters' deadlines. Reporters work to meet deadlines set by their editors. Ask them when their deadline is and work to provide information within that time. Never be late to an interview. Always ask the reporter how much time you have and keep to the allotted time. Thank them for spending time interviewing you.
• Think in threes. Keep your message simple and straightforward. Think in threes—three key points, three supporting points, three examples. Don't try to talk about everything you do in one interview; you don't have time and the interviewer doesn't care. Do a good job with this interview and you will get a shot at another. Ramble on and you’ll be “that guy” who the reporter avoids.
• Keep to your message. This is sometimes referred to as “being on message.” Convey your thoughts to the media concisely and consistently, maintaining your company's point of view. Too many interviewees become sidetracked; they discuss the weather, the marketplace, competitors. Sometimes, interviewees forget with whom they are speaking and they ramble, wasting a reporter's time. Don’t don this.
• Speak to be quoted. The term “sound bite” is overused, but the idea is solid. Speak in such a way that you can be easily quoted by a reporter. Deliver succinct answers that repeat or rephrase the question. Say something that will be memorable to his or her readers. Tailor your main points to the audience. If you're discussing small businesses, use a small business example that will resonate with the audience. You don't need to be outrageous to be memorable.
• Quote facts and figures. Be specific: Use facts and figures that underscore your main points. Make the material available to reporters. Refer to industry data that supports your arguments.
• Use specific examples and anecdotes Your story comes alive when you use an example or anecdote to convey your point. You should have a number of concrete examples at the ready for use during interviews. These should be brief and to the point and help to convey your story and thought leadership.
• Use your notes when possible. This is an easy one that many people forget. If you are being interviewed by print reporters or especially during an interview over the phone, make sure to keep your notes handy. It is perfectly acceptable to refer to your notes, especially for a specific fact or figure.
• Always stay on the record. This is a big point. Reporters may ask you to speak “off the record” or “on background” about a topic or competitor. Don't do it. While you may never be quoted, when the reporter speaks to your competitor with information that only could have come from you, it will come back to haunt you.
• Control your interview. The reporter asks the questions, but you control the interview. You control the pace, you control the answers and you control the direction. If a reporter doesn't ask the question that you want, suggest the question yourself. If the reporter asks a question you don’t particularly care for, rephrase it with one that you’re prepared to answer. This is why I said earlier that you’re not having a conversation, you’re having an interview.
• Keep your temper. Reporters can often be challenging. Some trade reporters can be real know-it-alls and try to bait you with skeptical questions. Let it go. Don't argue with them. Say instead, “That's an interesting way to look at the subject, but we look at it a little differently, let me explain…” Remember the Mark Twain axiom: “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”
• Speak clearly. When you're speaking over the phone or on camera, remember to speak up at the end of a sentence. People have a tendency to rush through their statements and to swallow the last syllable. Make sure to be clear when to make a statement. Also, spell out the name of your company and its Web address. Don’t assume the reporter knows that your company uses a “dot-net” domain for its Web address, rather than a more common “dot-com.”
• Stop talking Don't feel the need to fill in the dead air during an interview unless you are attempting to guide the reporter toward a particular question. Let the reporter think and ask follow-up questions. When you are finished answering a question, stop talking.
Obviously there is more to a media interview than memorizing a few guidelines. Developing interviewing skills takes patience and practice. But it’s a skill that is well worth the time once you see the resulting story with your comments.
This was excerpted from PR News Media Training Guidebook 2009 Edition. The article is written by Arthur Germain, principal at Communication Strategy Group. To order this or other guidebooks, log onto www.prnewsonline.com/store.