If you’re a representative of any organization, be it a business, charity, or a model train club, the occasion may arise where you are asked by a journalist to be interviewed for broadcast or print publication.
Journalism has changed, chiefly through shrinkage. In the past there were dedicated reporting divisions for politics, business, science, religion — you name it. Not so these days; out of necessity, the typical reporter is a generalist who can’t reasonably be expected to clarify matters on your behalf. This makes it vital for you to take personal responsibility for the clarity of your message.
The main guiding principles in media relations are first to avoid an adversarial relationship, and second to always manage yourself; don’t try to manage the media — it’s not possible.
Understand the media has a job to report newsworthy information, and they do this to build their audience so they can be profitable. They are not there to give you free publicity, so your goal is to influence balanced reporting. Get your message into the news by helping the interviewer find their story. You can do this by positioning your message as desirably newsworthy, and by building relationships such that the media will call you when there’s a story that impacts your organization, and they want your point of view.
The best strategy to this end is to cultivate a cordial, businesslike connection, as opposed to behaving as though the reporter is out to get you.
Negotiate Preparation Time
Don’t grant an interview on the first ring of the phone. When a journalist first calls, manage it like a business call and negotiate time to prepare for the interview; don’t be persuaded into immediately going on the record.
If possible, find out the premise and scope of the interview. This is not just so you can have your facts ready, but also to ensure they’ll be talking to the right person (it might not be you). Adopt a helpful tone, ask for their deadline, and setup an appointment that gives you at least minimal time to prepare. This is in their interest just as much as yours.
Regardless of the journalist’s aims, the interview is an opportunity for you to deliver an informational payload. Distill your message into three assertions to communicate to the audience. Sit down and select three statements that illustrate what’s most important to your side of the story; points that, should you succeed in getting them across, would constitute a successful, balanced accounting of your viewpoint. In other words, have in mind three things to say regardless of what questions you are asked.
Prepare for Likely Questions
Don’t hesitate to ask for the questions in advance, but understand you won’t always get them — many reporters prefer a more organic interaction. Make a list of questions you think you may be asked, and either be prepared to directly answer them or have a strategy to bridge from that question to one of your three assertions. This must be done with great care; a well connected bridging statement will aid the audience’s understanding of your viewpoint, while a badly executed one will make you seem evasive.
A few examples of bridging statements:
- However, it’s important to remember…
- With that in mind, if we look at the bigger picture…
- Let me put this in perspective by saying…
- Before we continue, let me emphasize that…
- The thing we are focusing on is…
- I wouldn’t say that, but I would say…
- Our research shows…
When you do have a direct answer for a question, answer concisely and take the opportunity to bridge that answer to one of your assertions, provided it makes narrative sense to do so. Never, ever say “No comment” to a reporter. This only makes you look as though you have something to hide, and contributes to an adversarial tone.
Shut The Hell Up!
Answer the questions, and/or bridge to your assertions, then STOP TALKING. Avoid long, rambling monologues in response to a question. This can be difficult, as we’ve all been raised to abhor “dead air” in conversation and we often feel compelled to fill even brief silences. What happens as a result of this is the watering down of your assertions with a hundred other points.
Worse, you may inadvertently go to a topical place you don’t want to be, perhaps where you are ill-equipped to comment, painting yourself into a corner. The interview can really go downhill from there! This is particularly important for on-air interviews; let the interviewer ask the question, give your concise answer, then shut up. In other words, manage yourself, not the media.
Keep An Open Door
Finish the interview with an offer to be available for further clarification if needed. Do not ever request to review, edit or approve the story! The reporter does not work for you, and such requests are not only rude, but a violation of journalistic ethics. That’s not any way to build a relationship. You could say “We’ve covered a lot of ground here, spewed out a lot of data; if you need clarification, call me and I’d be happy to go over it again.” Just offer an open door for additional communication.
Manage Your Expectations
Measure your success on how well your assertions made it into the story. Journalists may talk to other people and get viewpoints other than your own; the fact that contrary viewpoints may come across is not a sign of failure on your part. It may be hard to read or watch, but again you can’t assume control of the journalistic process. You can only do your best to make sure your message is part of the narrative.
If there’s a factual error or falsification that you absolutely cannot live with, you can follow up with the reporter and offer your criticisms, but only do this in dire circumstance, coupled with a cordial offer of further communication.
A Few Tips
- Avoid using industry jargon, arcane technical terms, or acronyms that laypeople may not understand. In instances where they’re unavoidable, take the time to explain them.
- Make use of analogies whenever possible to make your message more relatable to those outside your “special interest.”
- When citing statistics, be sure they are accurate and well sourced. Be prepared to explain why they matter; don’t let your message be undermined by the impression you’re pulling numbers out of thin air.
- Steer clear of speaking “off the record”; say only what you’re comfortable saying publicly. Don’t present yourself to the interviewer as someone with an axe to grind.
- The No BS rule: If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so, and let the interview move on from there; don’t make anything up in an attempt to seem authoritative. As the old saying goes, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” *
- Consider following up with a thank-you note, and request a copy of (or link to) the finished article or news clip. This is especially wise if you wish to cultivate an ongoing relationship with that particular media outlet.
If you’re giving an interview in the wake of controversy, scandal or tragedy, the questions are going to be hard. The media are in the business of being profitable, and there is nothing personal about news reporting. Being mindful of these things helps take the emotion and nerves out of the situation, and keeping your cool might be the most important communication skill of all.
* This quote has been attributed to dozens of people, including Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Lisa Simpson, but it’s very likely a paraphrasing of Proverbs 17:28.