Are You Ready for Your Media Interview?
By Paul Lima | December 31, 2005
If you are not prepared for interviews, you may not convey the information you want to express or you may look as if you are hiding something - even if you are not. If you are prepared, you will be able to articulately reply to simple, complex or confrontational questions.
You control your answers
While you do not control the questions, you do control your answers. And you prepare by carefully crafting several simple, interesting and newsworthy messages, supporting points and related anecdotes. To do this, think about the impression you want to make and the most pertinent information you want to convey. During the interview, you weave your messages into your answers.
For instance, if a journalist were writing an article about my media training services, I would expect to be asked: "When did you start to conduct media training?" I could answer give a simple, honest answer: "In 2000." But why wouldn't I answer the question this way:
"As a technology and business journalist, I noticed business owners often had difficulty telling good news stories because they lacked the media training that senior executives of publicly traded corporations receive. Many journalists expressed frustration because they could not get small business owners to open up during interviews for positive news stories. So in 2000, I started to conduct media interview training to help entrepreneurs, small and medium business owners prepare for interviews with reporters. Two years ago, I started to work with non-profit organizations as well."
I still answered the question honestly - "in 2000." But in less than 30 seconds, I worked in a problem, a solution and my target audience. All of these points are part of my key messages. In addition, I gave the reporter fuel for further questions: "Can you tell me what mistakes most small business owners make when talking to journalists?" "Why do you think business owners are hesitant to tell their story?" So while I do not control the questions, my answer might spark questions that pertain more closely to the information I want to express.
There is no guarantee that the reporter will use what I say in the article. However, by incorporating my key messages in my answers, I dramatically increase the chance that the journalist will tell my story the way I'd like to have it expressed.
Answer the questions
In most instances, journalists want to tell your story. That is why they interview you. So why wouldn't you weave in your key messages? As you answer different questions, judiciously repeat your key messages for emphasis, but make sure you answer the questions. If you do not answer the questions, the journalist will feel as if you are in "spin" mode - like a politician during an election campaign (or at any time, come to think of it).
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. If you do not know the answer to a question or if you are not authorised to answer, let the journalist know that you need time to find the answer or to find someone who can address the issue. If you are dealing with a crisis, tell the reporter what you are authorized to say and no more.
For instance, if an explosion at your place of business seriously injured someone, reporters will want to know the name of the injured person and the cause of the explosion.
In response to, "Can you tell us who was injured?" it is perfectly legitimate to say: "We will release the name of the injured person once the family has been notified." In response to, "Can you tell us what caused the explosion?" it is perfectly legitimate to say, "The Fire Marshall's Office is investigating and they will release the results once their investigation is complete." You might suspect what caused the explosion but do not speculate, no matter how many times and how many ways the reporters ask you about the cause of the explosion. Simply repeat that which you are authorized to say.
In most instances, however, you will be dealing with reporters who are following up on media releases sent out by your company or organization to promote a new product, service or event. Answer the questions and weave in your key messages. If you are being asked for an opinion on an industry trend or issue, answer the questions and work in your key messages.
Again, there is no guarantee that the reporter will use your information, but at least you have presented it. Many journalists cover "beats" - business, technology, entertainment, food, lifestyle, sports, politics, and so on. Part of your goal when being interviewed is to give the reporter pertinent and colourful information so he or she interviews you again when writing related articles. In short, you never know when providing solid, relevant information will pay off.
Embellish with anecdotes and stats
Use anecdotes to add colour or a human-interest element to your message. For instance, in order to convey how some people are paranoid of journalists, I often tell the story about the business owner who answered "no comment" to every question he was asked by a reporter who wanted to write a positive profile about his recent business success. Of course, with "no comment" as the only answer, the reporter could not write the positive profile.
When telling my "no comment" anecdote, I do not use the person's name. But I also have media success stories that I can tell, and have permission to drop names. If you have customer case studies that illuminate your message, obtain permission to use the client's name as that gives your anecdote greater credibility.
Also, if appropriate, have some interesting and relevant statistics handy. For instance, journalists often ask me how important media relations is to businesses. I tell them that public relations generates 28% of sales inquiries, second only to advertising (38%), according to a study by Inquiry Handling Services in California. If the journalist doesn't ask about the importance of media relations, I weave that statistic into an answer - because I want my target audience to read it. The statistic is often used in articles because reporters love stats.
What if the journalist is concluding the interview and I haven't worked my stats into an answer? It's time for me to ask a question: "By the way, I have some stats that support the importance of media relations. Are you interested?" In most cases, the reporter will say yes and I then deliver my 20-second stats spiel.
Practice, Practice, Practice
After you develop your key messages and anecdotes, practice, practice, practice. If possible, have someone conduct a mock interview and tape your replies. Although it can be disconcerting to see yourself on tape, the best time to feel nervous is while you are rehearsing.
You may still have butterflies before the interview, but that's normal. I don't know about you, but when it comes to media interviews, I'd rather be prepared and nervous than unprepared and nervous!