Media interviews of an organization’s executives can greatly enhance the value of a media placement. Corporate executives who handle media interviews poorly, however, can cause a PR crisis.
Some media spokespeople, business leaders and others have mastered the art of handling media interviews. They know how to diplomatically deflect difficult questions and accusations even while retaining the goodwill of listeners. Others bumble through interviews and make matters worse with their responses.
Executives and spokespersons can vastly improve their responses with a few simple interviewing techniques.
Training and Preparation. Corporate executives and spokespersons who conduct off-the-cuff media interviews are more apt to give inappropriate or misleading responses. Consistently succeeding in media interviews requires training, practice and preparation. That preparation should include establishing in advance the purpose of the story, the reason for the interview, and what the reporter expects to accomplish in the interview.
Research. If you’re not already familiar with the interviewer’s publication, researching it and its audience will help you understand their viewpoints, pain points and the reporter’s agenda. That research is critical for anticipating questions and planning your responses.
Plan your key message. Examples and statistics can support your company’s message. One-liners or sound bites that concisely, and perhaps with wit and alliteration, summarize your position are more likely to be published or broadcast. Media interviewers ignore verbose explanation and industry jargon. Anticipate difficult questions and rehearse your responses aloud on your own or with a colleague. Using different words to make the same point can help stop you from sounding like a robot.
Don’t say anything “off the record.” That may only annoy reporters, and the remarks may still be published. Don’t be lulled into having an “off-the-record” conversation after the formal interview is over, warns Joyce Newman, founder of the Newman Group. That’s when a reporter can spring a question that you didn’t expect. Act as if everything is on-the-record – which it is.
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. Instead, attempt to deflect the question by bridging away from negative question to positive response.
The Bridging Technique
The key to bridging is saying a phrase or sentence that transfers the question to your key message. “That’s an excellent question” is a common but perhaps overused bridging phrase. It gives the impression the interviewee is seriously considering the question and compliments the interviewer.
Media First, a communications training specialist in the U.K, also suggests: “What’s most important here is that…” or “The key issue is…”
Other techniques include referring to your target audience, as in something like “Look, if you’re small business looking for investment what really matters to you is that …”
The interviewee can also offer a personal story with something like: “Let me tell you why I went into in this business …”
Since different transitions work better for different people, PR pros and other interviewers have to find bridge phrases that fit their own style. For successful bridging, it’s crucial to follow the bridging phrase with comments that interest the publication’s audience.
For Real Tough Questions
Truly difficult questions call for other tactics, says Kim Harrison, principal of Cutting Edge PR. Some possible responses include:
Decline to answer. Refer the question to another because it is outside your responsibility.
Question the question. Ask for clarification or more information about the question as a delaying tactic. Alternatively, turn the tables on the interviewer with a response such as “Why do you ask that?” or “Who’s making that accusation?”
Question the appropriateness of the question. Say it fails to address the main issue, is based on a false assumption, is factually inaccurate, or is too personal or objectionable.
Final thought: It’s the responsibility of PR to assure that executives who serve as the organization’s spokespersons are fully-trained in media interviewing techniques. The PR staff can do the training themselves, but formal training by a media training expert is far more effective. A Google search on “media training OR public speaking” will produce resources such as Brad Phillips at Mr. Media Training and T.J. Walker. Dale Carnegie also offers training courses in public speaking. Some PR agencies also provide media training for their clients. With rare exceptions, an executive spokesperson trained in media interviewing techniques is more effective than one who just wings it.
Bottom Line: Every media interview has the potential for a major public relations victory – or a crisis. Understanding the publication and its audience can help anticipate questions and develop responses. Questioning the interviewer in advance about the purpose of the story can provide guidance on potential questions. The proven technique to succeed in media interviews is to bridge tough question and then to deliver carefully prepared, concise answers that communicate corporate messages.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.