Acing Your Media Interview

So you have an upcoming media interview and the panic has set in. You know your stuff but what if the reporter tries to trip you up? What if you forget something? What if you sound silly, uninformed or out-of-touch? All of those “what ifs” can quickly pile up so take a deep breath. We have some tips and tricks for you to follow in order to ace that interview. But first, it helps to put things in perspective. Formally defined, public relations is the management function that identifies and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its various publics. However, in the real world, the term can mean different things to different people. And, unfortunately, the practice of public relations often is confused with its many activities, including lobbying, public affairs, community service and, of course, media relations. Media relations is non-paid communication with a newspaper, magazine, television or radio station that can result in editorial coverage: the actual stories you can read, see or hear. Since you do not pay for news coverage, you do not have total control over the message. In fact, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment ensures that outsiders have very little control over the content and timing of news coverage. Attempting to exert control is not only counterproductive, but typically results in strained working relationships with the news media and negative or no coverage. Advertising is a paid form of communication in a newspaper or magazine, or on a television or radio station.  You specify the exact message you want. And since you pay for this right, you can tell a newspaper, magazine, radio or television station precisely what to say and when to say it. You retain total control over the message, and you or your organization is the source of the message. Different agendas mean different approaches. The agendas of advertising sales people and members of the news media are quite different. Yet, in a business situation, it can be hard to tell the two apart. No matter how proficient we become in our field, we still get burned once in a while by a slick ad sales person who asks for an interview for his paper or station and then shows up with a rate sheet. The fact is that advertising sales people are not your vehicle to secure any kind of news coverage. For reporters, the distinction between advertising and editorial is like the separation of church and state. A reporter should never be asked to do a story because you advertise in his newspaper or on his station. Any reporter who would accept this rationale lacks credibility and is not worth getting to know. Most members of the editorial news media, even in the smallest of markets, pride themselves on being as distinct and separate from the advertising side of the business as possible. In their eyes, even the mention of advertising – yours or anyone else’s – conveys the message that you may be trying to exert influence on the editorial process through advertising clout, even if you have no intention of doing so. The accepted rule of thumb is to keep the two functions, and their representatives, as far apart as possible. Identifying the right media contact is vital to success. Since several people are involved in the newsgathering and reporting process, it is important to identify the most appropriate contact at each media outlet.  Generally speaking, we work with the reporter assigned to cover a particular industry or specialty at print outlets such as daily newspapers, weekly business journals and trade publications. The contact at newspapers usually is the editor, managing editor or beat reporter. Trade publications typically assign their reporters specific beats to cover. The news director or talk show producer is the typical contact at a radio station. For television, we usually approach an assignment editor. While these are basic guidelines, in-depth research is required to determine the appropriate contact for each and every news story idea. Keeping this in mind, it becomes obvious that the news release is not the only form of communication with members of the media. In fact, it is just one way public relations professionals interface with media representatives since not everything a company does is worthy of a news release. Phone calls, pitch letters, media advisories, news conferences, fact sheets, e-mail, and personal letters to an editor or reporter all are effective ways to communicate with the media. The key to generating interest is developing a compelling news story. A news story usually begins as an idea or question which may have come from a larger regional or national article, a trend, the competition, a crisis, a personal idea, or through the suggestion of a public relations professional. A reporter then takes that question or idea and begins doing research. He or she may rely on written sources such as books, publications or reports, or he may call on noted professionals to serve as news sources. How can you be a good source for a reporter or editor? There are six simple steps you can take to give a better interview.
  1. Before speaking to a reporter or editor, you must have a reason to do so. Determine in advance what you want to achieve.  Define what you want the reporter’s or editor’s audience to know.
  2. When being interviewed by the general (or public) media, remember you are communicating with your existing and potential customers, supporters, vendors, employees and others. The reporter or editor is only a conduit through which you are communicating.
  3. Everyone wants to know “what’s in it for me.” Always speak in terms of consumer benefits, not benefits to your company.
  4. Don’t just answer the reporter’s questions. Instead, use the interview as an opportunity to send messages to your stakeholders including customers, employees and others.
  5. Ensure your messages are communicated by always having three or four “key talking points” in mind prior to an interview. These should be the main points you want stakeholders to understand about your company, your product and/or the topic at hand.
Gain control of the interview by frequently bridging from a reporter’s question to one of the points you wish to make.  Phrase your key points in a variety of ways, and see how many times you can mention them during the course of the interview.