Daphne Gray-Grant

Three Rules for Media Interviews

By: Daphne Gray-Grant | September 25, 2014 | 

media interviewsBy Daphne Gray-Grant

My brother-in-law—an engineer—recently reminded me that I had taught him the three rules for media interviews.

“They really work,” he said, with a big smile on his face.

I was astonished.

Not because the rules worked, but because I honestly hadn’t remembered teaching him.

I started my working life as a journalist and eventually became director of communications for the media publishing company.

Soon, their presses started breaking down.

And then they became involved in a strike.

If there was a degree in “Media Trouble-R-Us,” I had earned it!

As a result, I developed my own three rules for media interviews.

In Media Interviews, Always Have Three Key Messages

The biggest error most companies make when facing the media is they go into full-on defensive mode.


Instead of vowing to “survive” the interview with a minimum of damage, convince yourself it’s your job is to convey your own three messages.

(And, when you accomplish this, congratulate yourself on your success.)

The best defense is always a good offense.

So, why only three messages?

The same reason there are three little pigs, three stooges, and three musketeers. And the same reason I have three rules for media interviews.

People remember things more easily in groups of three.

This will help you remember the messages yourself and will ensure your audiences remember them, as well.

When developing the key messages, make sure they answer the main questions reporters are likely to have about your story.

If your train has derailed, express concern for the passengers and describe your company’s commitment to safety.

If you’re laying off staff, explain why, and describe the (generous, I hope) severance packages.

If your CEO has died, express regret for the family and describe your succession plan.

Most importantly, make sure your key messages address the Why? How? Where? questions.

Then, use those messages to answer all the questions you’re asked.

Have Some “Turning Phrases” Ready

When a reporter asks you a question you can’t or don’t want to answer, have a list of phrases that will allow you to turn the question and provide the key message you have ready.

Here’s a handy list of them:

  1. The more important question is… [return to key message]
  2. I find, what people really want to know is… [return to key message]
  3. The crucial issue in front of us today is… [return to key message]

Don’t ever answer questions with other questions as that will make reporters see you as belligerent and provocative.

But you can redirect, if you do it in a respectful and friendly fashion.

Try to memorize the phrases above (or develop some new ones) so that you aren’t always “turning” with the same words.

Remember: The Microphone is Always On

Print reporters know they always get their best material after their notebooks are closed.

And TV reporters know they get their best stuff if the subject is unaware the camera is still running.

Consider this 2012 example from President Barack Obama and then-Russian-President Dmitri Medvedev:

Obama: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space.”

Medvedev: “Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…”

Obama: “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

Following what was widely viewed as Obama’s gaffe, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized the remark.

He said,

President Obama signaled that he’s going to cave to Russia on missile defense, but the American people have a right to know where else he plans to be ‘flexible’ in a second term.

It was a stupid mistake and one you need to arm yourself against.

You may have a cordial relationship with the media but they have a job to do, and it doesn’t usually involve helping you.

Always regard anything you say in the presence of a reporter as something that might appear on the 6 p.m. news.

Edit yourself accordingly.

What rules are you adhering to in order to make sure you’re getting the media attention you deserve?

photo credit: www.audio-luci-store.it via photopin cc

About Daphne Gray-Grant

Daphne Gray-Grant is a former daily newspaper editor, a writing and editing coach and the author of the popular book 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Via her website, she offers the newsletter Power Writing. It’s weekly, brief and free. Sign up at the Publication Coach website.

  • “Media Trouble-R-Us” – toughest training ground ever! Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  • Good advice and on point. I love the point about having a cordial relationship. I think occasionally, when I was in journalism, some comms folks would forget cordial did not mean you owned us (or vice versa).

  • I was having lunch with a friend recently who’s a city editor at my local paper. She told me about someone calling the paper, talking to a reporter for 20 minutes, then trying to retroactively say the entire conversation was off the record.
    Yeah, that’s not going to work.

  • Anneliz Hannan

    Agree, don’t huff and puff as they will blow your house down!

  • Eleanor Pierce No kidding! What a rookie mistake.

  • ClayMorgan Indeed. I had the same issue. But you can always be friendly when saying no! 🙂

  • biggreenpen Thanks for your kind words.

  • I really like your, turning phrases, Daphne. As a media trainer, I’ve always taught the “blocking and bridging” techniques with “What’s important to realize …” and “What I can tell you …” Glad to have some new phrases to add to that arsenal.

  • It never ceases to amaze me how people in positions of power (business, politics, what have you) can reach those heights with NO CLUE as to how to deal with the media. How is that even possible?? Up here in Canada, we had a situation recently where a member of parliament did SUCH a horrible job evading a question and backtracking that the other MP on camera with him LITERALLY did a face-palm – with both palms! He buried his face in his hands, shaking his head, he was so stunned by what was happening. Needless to say, the image has become a bit of a media sensation. LOL

  • belllindsay Somehow I’d managed to miss this story. Thanks for sharing!

  • MonicaMillerRodgers And thanks for giving me two more for MY list!

  • SusynEliseDuris

    Great post. These are key, spoken from someone who has given her share of interviews in tech over the years. I’d say also to be cognizant of the audience – when I have had interview requests, I’m researching the journalists and comments to their articles well before the interview to give me ideas on how to best frame responses/messages, or confirm what I know about them.
    Ha! Loved the “Don’t ever answer questions with other questions as that will make reporters see you as belligerent and provocative.”

  • SusynEliseDuris You’re very lucky if you have time to research individual journalists! Whenever I’ve done crisis communications, things have been way too crazy for that. But it’s a really good point — assuming you have the time!

  • SusynEliseDuris

    Daphne Gray Grant I was referring more to when I get a request for interview re: new product, new funding, etc. It helps to understand where journalist is coming from. I take the same position as I would for any meeting…prepare!

  • SusynEliseDuris Daphne Gray Grant Yes, really good point!

  • These are fantastic! The key messages thing is so important. Know what points you must get across and then just keep coming back to those points. If you focus on too many things you’ll be diluted and confused and there is much more room for “interpretation” on the reporters part.

    I also always remind people to answer “in context,” so repeat the question when you are answering. That way you lessen the chance of the reporter grabbing your answer or sound bite and using it completely out of context (which is where things get really scary).

    So is response to: ‘What’s your favorite way to cook chicken”, you’d say “When it comes to cooking chicken I like to…..”

  • LauraPetrolino Good point, although it’s equally important to never repeat negative messages. For example, if a reporter says: “XYZ company is a group of scam artists,” you should never says “No, XYZ company is NOT a group of scam artists!” Instead, say something more neutral like, “I disagree. XYZ company really cares about its customers.

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  • bessdonoghue

    Great article! After working as the PR coordinator on a music festival, there are so many ideas that I agree with, particularly the first. Having those key message ready not only for a media interview, but throughout the duration of publicizing an event was really helpful. Our only struggle was making sure everyone knew those messages in the case that, as you pointed out in number three, a journalism should try and talk to someone, we were prepared for a never-ending running camera. I had never considered your second suggestion, that we can reroute the conversation, but I’ll continue to remember that going forward! Thanks!

  • bessdonoghue You make a good point about the need to ID a media spokesperson, Bess. I can see this being really hard for a massive event like a music festival and, in a case like that, you’ll likely need 2-3 spokespeople. But everyone should be trained that ALL questions should be directed at those people (who, ideally, have been trained.)

  • elmayuga

    I like the Rule of Three because it is easy for the general public to comprehend. In all reality, they will probably only remember the last statement you made, so that should be the most important of the three points. Thank you for sharing this blog post – it sure beats saying “I categorically deny any such allegation!” when deflecting the question.

  • elmayuga Thanks for your kind words. Just remember that if you’re being interviewed for TV or radio, the need for the reporter to “remember” anything is eliminated. There’s a recording!! And they can use whichever 10-15 second clip they want. For this reason, I think the point about having key messages is actually the most important tip.

  • Funny!