You can be articulate, gregarious, the finest after dinner speaker, suave and sophisticated, witty and always with a quick turn of phrase but amid the heady and complex environment of a media interview, a real cerebral battleground, even the best can slip up and produce that damaging but newsworthy soundbite. Then, all your fine words and sound arguments are wasted. It’s so easily done but can be also easily mitigated against. Here, several tips to avoid those “I want my life back” moments:
1. You or your PR/Press office get that phone call requesting an inteview. Seriously analyse the offer and the interviewer. Interviews are a good thing, don’t go away thinking anything else, but closely examine each interview request and do some research on the journalist – what’s their objective, do they have an agenda, what have they reported before?
2. Consider the “what’s in it for me” question. You need to know your own objectives. Without knowing that, how can you measure your success or ROI after a media engagement? If doing the interview doesn’t service your objectives, then consider why you’re doing it at all. As we said, generally interviews are a good thing, especially when they serve the interests of all parties – you, your organisation, the journalist and the public. If not, alarm bells should be ringing.
3. Contextualize. You are unlikely to be giving an interview in isolation, others will be talking – in the media, on the internet, in pubs and cafes. Be aware of the situational context you are entering, including who your audience is and how they see the world. Claiming one thing but being unaware that others are seeing it very differently will place you in a far from influential position – even if you are speaking fact. It’s the ‘nothing to see here’ factor when it’s obvious there is quite a bit to see.
4. Plan it. Based on your objectives, develop messages to service them (not just say the right thing). Identify supporting ideas, get hold of supporting information, identify your ‘red lines’, seek out newsworthy soundbites, garner and be utterly sure of critical facts. Prepare for obvious and tangential questions. This is where a bloody great big whiteboard comes into its own and writing down your thoughts and ideas wil help mentally anchor your plan in your head.
5. Practice, practice, practice. It’s an old cliche but if you fail to prepare, you are prepared to fail. Do serious Q&A and make sure that whoever is helping you gives you a hard time – if you are senior in your organisation, they have to be confident enough to deliver a little truth to power. Further, that Q&A (as well as your planning) must not be ego-centric, it must be coming from a perspective outside the organisation. What is obvious to you may not be obvious to others and vice versa. To this end, an external mentor or media trainer may be worthwhile investing in. And it’s not just about your words – visuals, or non-verbal communication, have to be practiced.
Investing time (if you’ve the luxury) in all of the above is vital. A good PR/press office will have a lot of this already done beforehand, although obviously not all. Take the time and the interview will go smoothly, as long as you use the usual tips and tricks of media interview conduct (bridging, rhetoric, using figures, soundbiting etc). But just two other things to do during the inteview:
6. Listen. Journalists and the public can easily recognise when you’re in transmission mode and it will annoy them. They both want a flowing dialogue, with reasonable responses to reasonable questions. If it’s apparent you’re not listening, you’re on the way to alienating them, regardless of what you say.
7. Think before you speak. Your first answer may not always be the best. If you’ve planned and practised, it probably will be but just pause to check. If the interview is a pre-record, then time is on your side – even ask for a break before you answer, if need be.
The research, preparation and planning can pay huge dividends in interviews but unfortunately too few invest in it. Those minutes in front of a camera or microphone can only be quality and service your needs if hours have been spent beforehand preparing. And remember that if you’re fortunate enough to have a team to help you, use them, or call in others who can. There’s no need to deal with this alone, after all, millions may be involved on the other side of the process.