PR Tips to Prepare Executives for Media Interviews

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While Covid-19 accelerated the trend to remote interviews on Zoom, the underlying basics of successful media interviews remain unchanged. It’s still incumbent on communications professionals to prepare and train business executives and subject matter experts for media interviews.

Although company leaders and experts boast extensive knowledge about their particular companies and subjects, they may not be skilled at answering journalists’ or analysts’ questions in interviews. Media interview can intimidate even experienced PR practitioners and business executives, but a well-done interview can greatly enhancethe value of a news story. So learning how to do a media interview well is a valuable skill.

These tips from communications experts can help PR pros prepare executives in their organizations to give stellar media interviews.

Do your research. Research the publication and its audience to understand their viewpoints, pain points and the reporter’s agenda. Visit the reporters’ social media profiles and read their previous articles. Thorough research can help anticipate questions that reporters may ask. That allows you to prepare responses and help executives rehearse those responses. Executives, themselves, may know some tough questions too. Rehearse answers to those as well.

Prepare personal anecdotes. In a media interview, Dr. Ugur Sahin, a researcher who was instrumental in the development of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, related how he received a phone call from Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, informing him of the successful vaccine trial. When interview Andrew Marr asked him how he celebrated, he explained:

“We did not have a lot of opportunity to celebrate,” Dr. Sahin said. “I just discussed the results with my wife and how fantastic it is – it is an extraordinary result – and had a tea together and just looked back at the last months until we got this data and of course it provides joy.”

“It was a great exchange, packed with details and a touch of humor. And it helped to show the human side of the people behind the vaccine,” writes Adam Fisher at Media First.

Share personal stories and examples at the start of the interview, without prompting from the journalist, Fisher advises. The tea-drinking anecdote sounded natural, it was previously reported in numerous publications, suggesting that Dr. Sahin had prepared and even rehearsed the story.

Ask about the interview. Ask reporters for background information about the interview. For instance:

  • Will the interview be live or pre-recorded? If your spokesperson has confidence, a live interview provides a better opportunity to get your key message across and control the content. A prerecorded interview may be cut to a short clip.
  • Who else will be interviewed? If you know that a competitor, unhappy customer or representative of a pressure group will be interviewed, you can research their likely comments and prepare a response.
  • What’s the story about? This may seem pretty obvious, but it’s always worth checking what angle the journalist is taking. They may intend to compare you to a competitor or relate your product to other news.
  • Where will the interview take place? This question is important for logistical and reputational issues. If reporters visit your offices, consider who else they might meet and what they might see. Make sure your organization’s logo is not in the background if it is a negative story.

Practice sessions. Ask the executive the anticipated questions in a practice session. Record the practice interview on camera, Rob Maurin, vice president, communications, at Wave, tells Forbes. Executives who view themselves on camera will better understand how they’re perceived.

Stay on message. Urge executives to remember the brand’s message. Interview topics often move in undesirable directions, especially during times of crisis and getting back on track can be challenging. “By bringing the conversation back to your mission, no matter what the question may be, you keep your brand messaging intact,” says Jennifer Mellon, president of Trustify. Learning how to deftly pivot the conversation is among the most important media interview skills.

Emphasize brevity. Long-winded responses typically fail to deliver the key message and annoy reporters, especially if they don’t answer the question. To prepare long-winded executives give them one piece of paper with a bulleted list to reference points for use during the interview, advises PR pro Jenna Cason. The list can include concise company facts and brief responses to expected questions.

Time them. Time their response to a question during a practice session with a stop watch (or a stop watch app). Ask them to guess the length of their responses. In general, they should aim to respond to questions within 30 to 45 seconds, Cason says.

Don’t over-coach. Avoid telling spokespeople exactly how to respond to a question. Encourage them to be succinct without taking away elements that make them unique and natural. Most of all, you want your executive to understand that an interview is a conversation between two people.

Don’t repeat a negative phrase or word that a reporter uses in a question. Even if you disagree with a negative description, repeating it encourages journalists to include it their headline or article. Instead, answer the question with positive language.

Avoid saying “no comment.” Journalists hate it and invariably write the story anyway with someone else’s potentially damaging comments. Sometimes spokespeople cannot answer a reporter’s question even if they know the answer due to legal, regulatory or privacy issues. For those situations, learn ways to avoid saying “no comment.”

Don’t say anything off the record. Some reporters request information off the record then publish the information anyway. Sometimes remarks are reported by mistake if the interviewer, interviewee or both misunderstand when the off-the-record portion ends. Respond with a simple, “I won’t go off the record.” Consider everything, even post-interview banter, as on-the-record. Also warn executives about other sneaky interview tricks journalists use like pregnant pauses.

Prepare for virtual interviews. In the wake of the Covid-19, most media outlets abandoned in-person interviews in favor of remote interviews through Zoom, Microsoft Teams or other apps. Remote interviews offer advantages, PR experts predict they’ll remain a fixture of the PR landscape.

“However, delivering a virtual interview from your home through Skype or Zoom presents a new set of challenges and requires unique training,” says Megan Redzia at 3E Public Relations. “Even spokespeople who have years of experience being interviewed in-studio, should be trained on the nuances of delivering an impactful remote interview.”

There are issues about lighting, seating, microphones and audio clarity, and posture that the executive must be aware of and solve before the interview. PR pros should test all those elements with the executive before a remote media interview.

Bonus tip: To gauge the success of media interviews, employ a media monitoring and measurement service. Media monitoring and measurement will gather essential information such as the number of key messages included in interviews and other news articles, the number of competitors mentioned and the sentiment of news articles. By tracking key metrics, media monitoring and measurement will prove the value of your media training and overall PR efforts.

Bottom Line: Research and thorough preparation are central to successful media interviews. It’s incumbent on PR to prepare executives for live or remote media interviews. Understanding the perspective of the news source and its audience can help you anticipate questions and develop responses. Questioning the interviewer in advance about the purpose of the story can also provide guidance on potential questions.

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This post was first published on July 21, 2016, and updated on Dec. 22, 2020.