Media interviews play a big role in public relations, whether you’re the spokesperson doing them or the PR professional arranging them. Skill, charisma, and luck all play a role in giving a good interview, but the most important factor is preparation. Here are some of the most important before, during and after tips for media interview preparation.
Key Messages: In order to make any interview worthwhile, and then be able to measure its impact accordingly, you must align your key messages with your organizational goals. Define and boil them down to bullet points, sound bites, full sentences, and responses that evoke the type of imagery that will resonate with the audience and reinforce those key messages.
However, don’t be so focused on your key messages that you’re not actively listening to the interview questions. Figure out how to say the same thing a number of different ways ahead of time, and then let the practiced responses flow according to the questions you’re asked. It will sound more natural — almost as natural as reciting your address — and retain the passion and sincerity needed to be compelling.
Prep for the unexpected questions: If you or your organization has been part of a large, or even small, media news story in the past year (or few), be prepared to field questions about it. Even if a years-old topic has absolutely nothing to do with your agreed-upon interview parameters, key messages, or the topic at hand, any spokesperson should be prepared to handle questions about it at any time. It’s vital to anticipate and prepare for left-field questions, so that you’ll know what to say without being (or feeling) flustered.
Practice the easy answers: You might have years of media interviews under your belt, but when asked the most banal of questions, even the best of us can get tongue-tied or worse, insert a foot squarely into the mouth.
No one is too good for prep. Even if you do interviews on a regular basis, make sure you set aside time to go over the answers to the questions you’re always asked.
Most interviews work off a variant of four base questions:
- What is your issue?
- Why does it matter?
- What do you want done about it?
- What would you say to your opponents?
This is where your key messages are important — they should be tailored to fit these questions.
Don’t forget to maintain sincerity. Feigned interest and defensiveness — even if unintentional — are huge interview killers. Be consistent, but never lose your genuine tone and expressions. Establishing a rapport is half the battle.
During: staying engaged and credible
Check recent headlines: In the immediate hours before the interview, check out the breaking news stories, especially those even tangentially related to your topic or industry. In fact, keep track of the news at all times for items related to your industry. You may be asked to comment on them, and you want to be ready.
Let’s say you’re a spokesperson at a coffee company launching a new snack or drink, and the reporter asks you, “How are recent changes to fair trade agreements affecting your organization’s costs and coffee supplies?” You’ll be able to answer that a lot better if you’ve kept up with fair trade headlines.
Be conscious of your body language: If you’re on a televised interview, sounding smart is only part of the equation.
Remember the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate? Radio listeners thought the pale, ragged Nixon won, while television viewers thought the handsome, tan Kennedy won.
Your appearance will matter just as much as your words, so ensure that you’ve given it ample consideration. Sit up straight on the edge of your chair and lean slightly forward as you tuck your feet beneath you. Then smile — a lot. Even if you think you’re smiling too much, neutral expressions on camera can read as surly or defensive. Also, keep eye contact with the interviewer. Looking around will make you look shifty and nervous. And keep your hands to yourself. An occasional understated gesture for emphasis is fine, but waving your hands around by your face or in front of your body is distracting. Also, make sure to keep your head somewhat still — lots of nodding, head tilting, or repositioning is likewise a big distraction. And keep in mind that in a pre-recorded interview, head nodding or shaking can be edited to make it appear like you agreed to something, when in fact you had no reaction or disagreed.
Finally, no matter the medium, be conscious of your body language to maintain a strong presence. Even if you’re doing a phone interview, treat it like it’s face-to-face. Your posture supports a stronger voice.
Maintain control: If you’re asked a question that’s off topic or that you don’t really want to answer, be ready to build a bridge and pivot back to your key messages. Bridges like “Before we leave this subject, let me add that ...” and, “The one thing that is important to remember is ...” are great ways to get back to your message.
To block a question you don’t want to answer, don’t say “no comment.” Instead employ a blocking phrase like, “I think what you’re really asking is ...” and, “That’s an interesting question, and to put it in perspective ...”
These are especially helpful when you’re asked a hypothetical question. If you’re asked a hypothetical, or just a question you don’t know the answer to, respond with, “That’s just not within the scope of my expertise, so I’m not the best person to answer that.” It’s always better to say “I don’t know” than to give a stupid answer.
When faced with a difficult question, frame your answers positively and never repeat negative questions. PR and communications pro and coach Michael Smart advises that when negative questions like, “How often does (something bad) happen at your company?” or, “How many times has this happened in the past year?” or, “How often do you expect this will happen going forward?” come up, you must word answers carefully.
If that “something bad,” like a minor product malfunction or bad behavior from an executive, has in fact happened once or multiple times, or if you can’t rule out the possibility that it will happen again, the wrong way to answer is to give details. Don’t say, “Well, we had four this year, five last year, and eight the year before that, so we’re doing better.” Unless this is already a major issue under media scrutiny, don’t give information.
Smart says that the right way to answer is to say something like, “Even one time is too many, so here’s what we’re doing to fix it and prevent it in the future: (lay out several significant steps).”
After the interview — assess, measure, leverage
Review for accuracy: After your interview is complete, take some time to go over the tape or read the resulting piece and assess how you did, preferably with your media trainer. Review everything you said to ensure it was accurate and correctly represented your organization and/or position. Then, critique — but don’t criticize — how you looked and sounded, messaging aside. Come up with things you could do better, and reinforce the things that you did well.
Measure the interview’s impact: Did your interview get picked up by other news outlets? Was it covered on blogs or re-aired on a different channel? Make sure you have a thorough media tracking and analysis system in place to not only see where your interview went outlet-wise, but also what sort of results you saw from that interview. Was there more interest in your organization or more engagement with your brand? It doesn’t end with the interview. Track how far it goes so you know your return for future interview opportunities, and so you can compare interview results against each other.
Repurpose the interview: Your interview has a much longer life and greater value than just the day of and the day after. Turn your interview into blog content, social media fodder, and use it as part of your personal and professional portfolio. When similar topics arise later down the line, you can refer back to the interview and make it part of a new conversation.
Attention to detail before, during, and after a media interview will help build and develop even the most skilled practitioner. As you build your portfolio of successful interviews, you or the spokesperson you train will be taken as a more credible expert within your industry.
BurrellesLuce is the U.S. leader in media monitoring. Professionals in a wide range of industries rely on our comprehensive curated content from local and national print, online, broadcast, and social media sources. BurrellesLuce has a turnkey copyright compliance program that allows us to provide copyright-compliant, behind-the-paywall content not available to other services. BurrellesLuce combines grade-A content with easy-to-use software, allowing users to evaluate and analyze their media coverage and PR efforts. It's all integrated into our user-friendly interface, BurrellesLuce WorkFlow™.