How To Not Suck In Your Next Media Interview
by Sean Broderick
So you received a call from a reporter and she wants to talk to you about your latest big project. Time to panic?
Earned media—articles written about you or what you do—remains one of the most effective public relations tools in the communicator’s toolbox. The key to capitalizing on these opportunities is understanding a few basic tenets about reporters and your ability to shape a story.
Reporters are people too.
First off, shed any misconceptions about reporters being anything but what they are: people with jobs to do. And most people like help doing their jobs. So think of media interviews as mutually beneficial opportunities to get what you want—your narrative in the reporter’s hands—while giving reporters what they’re after, too.
What’s your plan?
The most important thing you can do before an interview is to establish a plan. At the very least, know the publication and its audience, and tailor your messages to fit. A local magazine doing a human-interest story on your success will have different questions than a business publication that wants to cover your latest expansion. Anticipate what they want, and prepare your core messages–and related facts and figures–accordingly.
Background is your friend…
One tool that can help with almost any story (so long as you’re not live on camera, that is) is speaking to reporters on background. The concept of being “on background” is commonly understood among reporters—it means they can use the information a source gives them, but they are not to attribute it to that source. While it’s often used when the source wants to help but does not want to be quoted, it can be used during an on-the-record interview. Simply tell the reporter that you wish to speak on background and—once the reporter agrees—proceed. Once the background discussion is done, tell the reporter you are back on the record for attribution.
(Important side note: Unless someone specifies otherwise, assume you are always on the record when talking with a reporter, no matter the setting.)
Background is useful for providing context that is central to understanding a story. It’s also very useful for reporters, who usually don’t understand the intricacies of a story you’re involved in like you do. If you do enough interviews, you’ll inevitably be asked questions you’d rather not answer. Resist the urge to offer the classic “no comment,” as it almost always leaves too much to the reporter’s (and reader’s) imagination. Instead, consider a response along the lines of, “I can’t offer details on that, but what I can tell you is…,” followed by something that adds to the story.
…and so is silence. ‘No comment’ — not so much.
There will be times when reporters will press for information they want. Some savvy reporters use silence to coax you into carrying on. Be savvier—once you’ve completed your response, wait as long as necessary for the reporter to move on.
They will; they have a job to do.
A version of this post first appeared the Times Business section of the Fauquier/Gainesville/Prince William Times papers.