The Art of Preparation

You’ve all probably heard one of the following statement s from a CEO or executive who’s getting ready to face the media: “I don’t need to spend time preparing for an interview. I do my best thinking on my feet.” Or “I’ll wing it. It will be just fine.” Unfortunately, those are usually the folks who need media training the most: They just don’t know it. Quite simply, media interviews are strategic business opportunities for your company. This isn’t the time to wing it. With just one media interview, your business and message could be reaching thousands, if not millions, of potential customers or key decision makers. Don’t take the opportunity lightly.

Before you sit down with a reporter, make sure your spokesperson is prepared. This will not only help ensure that he/she is delivering an accurate and concise message, but will also give him/her added confidence in knowing what to expect.

You can bet that Republican congresswoman Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota wishes that she had taken a little more time preparing for her television interview with Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, in late October 2008. With less than three weeks left before her likely re-election, Bachmann went on Matthews’ show claiming that presidential candidate Barack Obama “may have anti-American views” and called for the news media to investigate similar views of members of Congress. Almost immediately after her comments aired, the fallout began: Her Democratic opponent saw a substantial spike in the amount of dollars being donated to his campaign fund, the national fundraising committee for GOP congressional candidates canceled its TV advertising for Bachmann and her poll numbers slipped. Bachmann claimed her words were twisted. Arguably, if she had only spent more time prepping for her television interview, she might not have gotten herself in that situation. She would have been able to not only anticipate the questions, but would have known how best to respond. 

Know Your Interviewer
Chris Matthews is known for his tough, pointed, no-holds-barred interview style. That’s much different than the type of interview you can expect from Kelly Ripa of Regis and Kelly or Rachel Ray. Before you go into an interview, know your interviewer and his/her style. How much does your interviewer know about your business? About the topic you’ll be discussing? How has he/she covered the topic previously? Is the person conducting the interview a staff writer or a freelancer? Staff writers are typically well informed about your industry and have a clear understanding of the objectives of their publication. On the other hand, freelance writers are typically less informed about a specific industry and could require you to alter the level and depth of your conversation so they can fully grasp what you’re talking about. Do your research and it will surely pay off in dividends. 

Anticipate the Questions
As a former television news reporter, I was always amazed at how many times I was asked the question, “What are you going to ask me?” just before the camera would start to roll. One minute before an interview starts is not the time to be thinking about the possible questions; interviewees should be doing that long before meeting the reporter.

While it may sound very elementary, start with the basic questions: Who, what, when, where, why and how? Develop a list of likely questions and appropriate answers. Look at those questions from all angles and then keep drilling down to get more information. Keep in mind that, while reporters are interested in details, their time is also limited. Stick to the topic at hand and keep your answers succinct and on message. What are the two or three key messages that you want the audience to remember? How will you make sure that you’re incorporating those messages into your responses? What examples or quick stories can you talk about that will help relay your key messages? Practice and then practice again. While an interviewee shouldn’t sound rehearsed, he/she should come across as polished and knowledgeable.

As part of your preparation, make sure you think about the toughest questions that a reporter could ask, including the questions you hope they don’t ask. Figure out, in advance, how you’re going to handle the situation. You might get lucky—the reporter might not ask that unwanted question. However, if he/she does, you don’t want to be responding on the fly. You want to know exactly how best to respond and how to get back on track to your key messages.

Keep in mind that a reporter can’t “make” you say anything you don’t want to say. You are the expert and you decide how to answer a question. Time spent in practice and preparation in advance can help spare you hours of regret and thoughts of “I wish I had said….” later on. Just ask Michelle Bachmann. 

This is excerpted from PR News Media Training Guidebook 2009 Edition. The article was written by Tami Kou, the lead media trainer at LaBreche, a brand communications company in Minneapolis, MN. To order this guidebook or find out more information, go to