So you have distributed your media release, it’s attracted some interest from journalists and now a couple of them have called you for an interview. What do you do?
Before you panic and run for cover, the most important thing to remember is that it’s an opportunity to get your messages to your customers via the journalist. You are in control of the interview.
The first step
It is important not to respond to any of the journalist’s questions on the initial call. To maximise the opportunity, you first need to organise your messages.
Ask the journalist what information they are looking for and the format of the interview (over the phone, one-on-one, live or taped). All journalists work to a deadline, so find out what their deadline is and set a time to call them back. Make sure you call them at the agreed time.
You can’t ask to see the questions or the story in advance. Remember you cannot change your quotes or edit the story after the interview. More often than not, the journalist will be interviewing other people to ensure the story has a balanced view, so don’t expect to be the only person interviewed or quoted.
Setting your agenda
Before the interview you will need to write out a ‘game plan’. You should prepare one before each and every interview. The game plan covers key issues, possible questions about the key issues and the answers for each possible question.
It is important to write these out – don’t try to do it from memory. If you are doing a phone interview, have the plan in front of you for easy reference.
Develop compelling messages
What are the key messages that you want to communicate? Key messages are the core information you want your audience to hear and remember. They create meaning, headline the issue and allow you to control the interview.
Your key messages are what you must get across in the interview – irrespective of the questions the journalist asks.
With your audience in mind, and focused on your objectives, work out in advance what you must say about the topic.
Understand the journalist’s role
The journalist’s role is not to try to catch you out, but to establish the facts and report on them objectively. If you focus on waiting for them to ask a tricky question, you will not be in control of the interview.
Journalists are looking for the truth. If you try to get a story by making claims that cannot be substantiated, it will not lead to a story. The article will not be published and they will certainly never ask you for an interview again.
Ensure than any information you provide, such as statistics, can be substantiated.
Know the real audience and objective
Try to develop an understanding of the audience the journalist is writing for so that you can set your agenda accordingly. It is worth looking up the journalist’s publication on the internet or buying a copy. If you have time, read some of the articles they have written so you can understand their style.
Practice, practice, practice
After your preparation, review your game plan and do a practice interview. Close the door to your office, take the phone off the hook and spend 10 minutes going over your key messages and answering the questions from your game plan. Remember, this is your opportunity to get your messages to your audience, so make full use of it.
How to deal with different types of media
Each medium – radio, TV and print – have specific requirements you should understand before the interview.
The main feature of radio is that it is a personal medium. Radio gives the illusion of a one-to-one relationship, which means that you should adopt an appropriate style when you go on radio programs.
You should take a friendly approach in interviews on talkback programs. In radio you are talking to or with people, not at them.
The radio message is a fleeting moment of sound. It is not the medium for complex explanations or lists of facts and statistics. The listeners have to be able to grasp your point on first hearing, as there is no visual reinforcement and no hard copy to check back for verifications.
Television is demanding in the sense that the audience can see you as well as hear you. Your body language, dress, background and movement all contribute to your communication with the audience.
To appear credible on television, you must both sound and look the part. Sit rather than stand, as you need controlled movement and remember to use slow, controlled gestures. Review your appearance before the interview, ensuring your dress, hair and facial expressions come across as credible.
The power of television is its visual impact – you must be brief, to the point and get the key message across in a limited time. Allow yourself time to think, look away and consider the question (look down to the floor not to the ceiling). Use silence instead of filler words such as ‘um’ while thinking
Press interviews have similar requirements, in terms of news value and brevity, as electronic media.
The apparent relaxed nature of press interviews should not lull you into a false sense of security. Ensure you get your key messages in early, be careful of rambling and place tonal emphasis on key messages. A trick for press interviews over the phone is to stand up while doing the interview – it will give you a lot more confidence.
Tips for managing the interview
Answer plus one
To ensure you maintain control of the interview, don’t just answer the question. Your objective must always be to communicate your key messages. Use the questions as an opportunity to make your points. This is called ‘answer plus one’. In other words, answer the question then add one of your key messages or key issues outlined in your game plan.
Answer in your own time
The journalist is interested in what you have to say, so don’t get flustered if you can’t think of an answer immediately. Just take your time, collect your thoughts and take a deep breath before you answer.
Don’t be afraid of silence
Some journalists use it as a technique in the hope you will fill the silence with unplanned information. Silence can be powerful and there is no need to fill it.
The “no comment” rule
Don’t say “no comment” as it implies confirmation of the question. The audience will interpret it as guilt or a cover up. The rule of thumb for responding is to explain why you can’t respond and use one of your key messages. For example, “I can’t respond directly to that for legal reasons, however, what I can tell you is…”
However, never allow wrongful allegations to stand. If the journalist says something wrong, correct them immediately. Do not repeat the incorrect information or question. If you do, it will only reinforce it.
Don’t use jargon
Every industry has its own jargon. Remember who your target audience is and communicate in language that they will understand. Also, don’t assume that the journalist is trained in your specific area of expertise – they may not understand any jargon you use.
Use your customers as testimonials
Depending on the topic of the interview, it may be effective to use one of your valued customers to validate your key messages. Ensure that they are comfortable speaking to the media. This can be an effective way to illustrate your point and helps your audience understand and identify with you.
Most importantly, have fun
The interview is a wonderful opportunity to promote your business, product or yourself. Take control, prepare and enjoy every moment.
Does your business have a media policy?
A media policy is essential to maximising all media opportunities – for any type of business, even if you are working from home. The following is an example of a media policy you can use for your business. It should be treated as one of your key policies/procedures.
Example media policy
All media calls are to be treated as important calls and we must ensure that we respond to the journalist’s enquiry and/or interview request in a timely and informative way.
It is important not to respond to any questions on the initial call.
The person taking the call should say:
- “I’m not the best person to talk to, but I will organise for the right person to call you back.” OR
- “I am not an expert in this area, but I can get someone to call you back.”
- For spokespeople – “I am in a meeting at the moment, but will call you back as soon as possible.”
The person taking the call must ask:
- What is your name?
- What publication are you calling from?
- When is your deadline?
- What information are you looking for or what is the topic of the interview?
- What is your phone number?
Once you have this information, tell the journalist that a spokesperson will call them back before their deadline.
If you can’t locate a spokesperson, contact your PR consultant.
If you can’t locate a spokesperson or your PR consultant before the journalist’s deadline, call them back and explain the situation, saying that a spokesperson will call as soon as possible. Do not do the interview yourself.
Before the official spokesperson participates in the interview they should:
- Review key messages
- Write out a game plan – what do you want to get across to the journalist?
- If possible, find out the journalist’s background and personality.
Catriona Pollard runs CP Communications, providing marketing and public relations solutions to a wide range of industries in both the small business and corporate sectors.
Photo: James Willamor (Flickr)