Media InterviewsBy Gini Dietrich

In a past life, I did a ton of media training.

I mean, a ton.

It’s kind of funny that that service is rarely requested anymore.

Sure, we’ll prep clients for media interviews with an agenda or a list of anticipated questions, but it’s rare to do the two-day, cameras on kind of media training anymore.

I credit that to the evolution of social media and to owned content.

Today, journalists are just as keen to receive contributed content as they are to interview someone for a story.

And, of course, social media has made the need for us to be transparent so critical, the age-old messaging a PR professional would do is almost extinct.

That said, there are still some things you should keep in mind when doing media interviews, both to maintain your professionalism and to get your point across.

Following are several pages taken right from The Arment Dietrich “How to Conduct Media Interviews” Manual.

How to Manage Difficult or Irrelevant Questions

While most media interviews have your best interest at heart, there are some cynical or jaded journalists who will try to “get you.”

This could happen if there are rumors your company is going public, if an executive was caught doing something bad, there are potential layoffs looming, or there was a recent company crisis.

There are many things you just aren’t able to comment on. Here is how you handle those types of questions.

  • Keep your answers brief and simply phrased. Think about the podcasts you listen to and people who put you to sleep. It’s likely because they don’t know when to stop talking.
  • Substantiate your position with easily understood examples, facts, and figures.
  • If you are uncertain about your facts, say so in answer to a legitimate question.
  • If you must own up to unfavorable information, be prepared to acknowledge it in a gracious, fair manner.
  • When using technical terms or definitions, assume your audience has limited knowledge, and simplify the explanations when possible.
  • Avoid jargon and strive for clarity.
  • Use questions as springboards to emphasize your objectives.
  • Avoid using the editorial “we” and time-wasting phrases such as “that’s a good question” or “I’m glad you asked that.” (You’ll notice a lot of people do these things, now that I’ve pointed it out.)
  • Think of your response in terms of a news item. First give the headline and then more information. The headline is usually what gets used, particularly in TV pieces.
  • Never say, “no comment” without providing a valid reason for doing so (attorneys are preventing it, you don’t have the information).
  • Try to state things in terms of the public’s interests.
  • Tell the truth, but don’t exaggerate.
  • It is better to admit that perhaps in the past errors have occurred (“… and these are the steps we are taking to correct …”), rather than hedging the truth.
  • If there is a live audience, direct answers to them, rather than just the interviewer.
  • Be aware of the journalist’s audience. When writing their stories, most reporters answer the basic question their average reader brings to a story: “What does this mean to me?” Help them answer that.
  • Be certain the interviewer knows where he/she can reach you while producing the story, so you can answer any new questions that come up. If you are unreachable, make sure the interviewer has a source for additional information (someone on your team or a PR professional).
  • Never ask that a comment remain “off the record;” there is no such thing.

The Interview, Itself

Of course, you also have to think about not only what you say, but how you present yourself, from the moment you walk in the door until the moment you leave the building.

  1. Be honest. A lie to the media can be very damaging. You must decide how candid you will be. Erroneous information will ruin your credibility with the public and with the media. If you don’t know, say so.
  2. Be prompt. Arrive early, especially for an interview. This allows you to talk to the producer or interviewer ahead of time. As Lindsay Bell says, “If you’re on time, you’re late.”
  3. Be believable. Credibility is vital to getting your message across.
  4. Be personal. Use the interviewer’s name once or twice in the course of the interview and look at him/her.
  5. Be conversational. Anecdotes play well on radio and television; if you have a good story that makes a good point, tell it.
  6. Be concise. Remember that a 10-minute interview may wind up being 20 seconds on the air or three lines in a newspaper. It is essential to crystallize your thoughts in a few hard-hitting sentences. Plan what message you want to send.
  7. Stay cool. Remember that the interviewer may try to unnerve you so you will divulge proprietary or unrelated information.
  8. Be smart. The interview does not stop just because the cameras stop rolling or the tape recorder is put away. Even small talk with a journalist can be fodder for a story. Be smart about you say to them, at all times.
  9. Listen. Bill Clinton was the master at this. Even though he likely knew what the journalist was going to ask before the question finished coming out of their mouths, he always listened intently, paused for a moment to think, and then answered the question. I practice this skill every day—from team meetings to interviews.

Body Language

Then you have to think about how people perceive you, simply by your body language, particularly if you’re doing TV interviews.

These tips also work for public speaking.

Positive Gestures and Expressions

  • Look your interviewer in the eye.
  • Lean slightly forward, if seated.
  • Make hand movements that occur naturally as a supplement to what you are saying.
  • Listen intently to the question.
  • Listen to what the interviewer has to say.

Negative Gestures and Expressions

  • Inappropriate smiling, laughter.
  • Tightly clasped hands.
  • Hands gripping sides of chairs, tables, knees; hands toying with pen/pencil, water glasses, buttons, microphones; drumming tabletop, microphone.
  • Tightening and loosening of jaw.
  • Ramrod straight, unnatural posture.

Impatient and Uncomfortable Gestures

  • Swinging legs.
  • Shifting in chair.
  • Shifting eyes.

Guilt and Uninterested Gestures

  • Casting eyes toward ceiling.
  • Failure to look at the interviewer.
  • Slouching posture.
  • Closing eyes.

Overcoming Nervousness

  • Practice a few relaxation exercises before you go on: Rolling your neck, swinging your arms, or stretching.
  • Take a deep breath, hold it for three to five seconds, and let it out slowly.
  • Stand naturally with your feet shoulder-width apart, your hands loose and relaxed. Shake your hands and arms, letting the vibration work itself into the rest of your body.
  • Nervousness creates added adrenaline in your system. It can make you sharper and quicker. Use it as a way to ensure you are “up” for the interview.
  • The best way to combat nervousness before the camera is to come prepared for the situation by knowing your subject and the major points you need to make.
  • In a talk show format, the host will spend a few minutes before the program talking to you about the subjects to be covered. This provides an opportunity to calm down.
  • Whether or not the camera is running, you’re “on” when you’re in the studio. Don’t make comments in the green room, during commercial breaks, or after the program, that you wouldn’t make on air.
  • Drink water to keep your voice clearer and help relax your throat.

The Dos and Don’ts of Media Interviews

  • DO “flag” key points with phrases such as, “The most important thing is …” or “I think the bottom line is …”
  • DO speak in easily understandable terms—avoid jargon and bureaucratese if simpler words will do.
  • DO use facts and figures as appropriate to support your points.
  • DO use illustrations and anecdotes to humanize and explain your topic.
  • DO be sensitive to the interviewer’s deadlines.
  • DO be engaging, likeable, and enthusiastic.
  • DO be yourself.
  • DO think in sound bites.
  • DON’T over answer—don’t keep talking to fill the silence (pay attention to how many people do this).
  • DON’T ever say, “no comment!”
  • DON’T ever say, “off the record.”
  • DON’T be afraid to pause.
  • DON’T allow yourself to be provoked.
  • DON’T fake an answer if you don’t know it.
  • DON’T assume the interviewer knows more about your area than you do.
  • DON’T assume the microphone, camera, or tape recorder is off immediately before or after an interview.
  • DON’T lie to an interviewer–ever.

Just Remember

  • View every interview as an opportunity to establish what you want people to know about you or your organization.
  • Review goals and key messages, and repeat them during the interview.
  • Organize your points in a concise, interesting, and provable manner.
  • “Headline” your points by starting with your assertion and backing it up with facts.
  • Don’t be so fixated on the questions asked of you that you forget to make your own points.
  • Be engaging and likable.
  • Refer to third-party experts or research to add credibility.
  • Use persuasive words and phrases such as “new,” “accomplishment,” “highest standards,” “increasing benefits,” “results,” and “proven.”
  • Avoid debating the interviewer. Don’t be argumentative. (Unless you’ve been invited on Bill Maher or Meet the Press.)
  • End with a direct and affirmative statement that will help your audience view your position.
  • Do not repeat loaded or slanted words used by the questioner. (For instance, the infamous Richard Nixon, “I am not a crook.”)
  • Be current on the events of the day–the interviewer is. It is helpful if you can relate your subject to a situation or a person in the news.
  • Be understanding. Interviewers are intelligent, trained observers who may not share your level of expertise on a given subject. Your job is to help them understand.

It Works in Real Life, Too!

These tips are helpful not just for media interviews, but for new business presentations, for speeches, for standing up in front of your entire team, and even for speaking in church.

In these instances, people don’t want you to drone on for four minutes, answering one question.

Think in headlines every time you answer a question. Be succinct.

Consider this: People will sit through no longer than a two minute video if it’s a talking head. How can you answer a question in 60 seconds or less to keep their interest?

Media interviews are not easy beasts to conquer and they take practice.

Practice these skills when you’re out to dinner with friends (listen to hear, not to respond), when you’re meeting with your colleagues, when you’re talking to customers, and when you’re on FaceTime with your mom.

photo credit: Funny Eye for the Corporate Guy

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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