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interviewing with the media

A Complete Media Training Guide

Part 1

The following media-training manual will be a series of blog posts that will provide you with basic tips and guidelines for communicating with the press. These broad guidelines include such things as general pointers on how to prepare for interviews and how to practice message discipline when communicating with reporters.

Be sure to always work with your media relations department when dealing with the media. It’s a good idea to have their name and contact info by your desk for reference. Or, if you are the media relations department – make sure people have your contact information.

TEN COMMANDMENTS OF MEDIA RELATIONS

  1. Embrace the media
  2. Invest in long-term media relationships
  3. Call media relations first
  4. Be honest with the media
  5. You are your organization
  6. You have control; do not abdicate it
  7. Think key messages
  8. Use the interview checklist
  9. Critique your performance
  10. Practice makes better

MEDIA INTERVIEW CHECKLIST

  • Is immediate manager aware of the interview?
  • No forecasting (of revenues, plans, etc.)
  • No speculation or answers to hypothetical questions.
  • No personal opinions, you are speaking for the company.
  • No implied or direct endorsements or evaluations of a vendor’s product or service.
  • No “Off the record” or “This is not for publication but …” statements.
  • Don’t speak for the customer. Have the appropriate name and telephone number available.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know but we can find out and get back to you.”
  • Don’t argue with a reporter or lose your temper.
  • Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to see in print.
  • Don’t discuss values of contracts or dollars invested in projects unless approved by customer.
  • Don’t discuss proprietary information.
  • Don’t lie.
  • Avoid acronyms, buzz words and jargon. In most instances, speak in laymen’s terms and give clear and easily understood examples. It helps to practice these sound bites and know when to use them.
  • Do your homework – even if you are a subject expert, Google what’s current.
  • Make a list of the four or five points you want to make. When possible, use these in responding to interviewer’s questions by bridging.
  • Identify sticky or problem questions you are likely to be asked and formulate an answer for each.
  • Stick to your subject area and, specifically, the subject you agreed to discuss. Keep the reporter on track as well.
  • Follow-up questions after the interview should be routed through your Public Relations Department.
  • Relax and be yourself – SMILE.

REACHING OUT TO THE MEDIA

There are two occasions on which you are expected to deal with the press—when they call you and when you call them.

You should not wait to hear from them. Your message will be delivered far more effectively if you produce a story or set up an event or issue a statement and call reporters to tell them about it than if you sit and wait for them to call you.

Too often, when the press calls you, it is because someone else—likely an adversary or a competitor—has contacted them with a story that involves your company. In many cases, this will be a negative story and the best you can hope for is a sentence or paragraph down in that story offering your point of view.

Far better to sell your own story to the press and let your adversaries and competitors do the responding.

Your company should take an aggressive approach in dealing with the press, reaching out and actively carrying your message to them.

But even with the most aggressive program, there are occasions when you are required to react to inquiries from reporters. This handbook via series of blog post, gives advice on how to respond effectively. A solid response can be very effective in accomplishing your external communication goals.

RESPONDING TO THE MEDIA

There are three simple principles we recommend you follow in order to develop a solid working relationship with the press; they are as follows:

  • Answer press inquiries promptly
  • Be accurate
  • Be honest and straightforward

Although no one would argue with these simple rules, in reality very few people adhere to them. If you follow them, you will have an advantage over most people with whom reporters come in contact. This can pay big dividends—reporters will come to you, rather than your competitors, when writing a story about your business and, in a pinch, they will tend to believe what you tell them.
The need for accuracy, honesty, and straightforwardness is vital no matter whether you are reaching out or responding.

Promptness

Reporters are trying to do their job by producing an accurate story within a deadline; therefore, it is important that you treat them with the same respect that you would extend to other business associates.

Your company should not avoid talking with reporters. It should build a solid relationship with them and use that relationship to good advantage by taking the opportunity to deliver important messages, such as: “At XYZ Company, we don’t sell technology, we sell results.”
If you promptly return phone calls from reporters, they will begin to look to your company for information to include in stories they are reporting. If they know that your company stalls or delays returning calls, they may look elsewhere for answers to their questions, perhaps seeking out someone with something bad to say about XYZ Company.

 

Promise the reporter a prompt answer and keep that promise, whether you personally respond or ask someone else in the company to call—perhaps someone with special expertise—or, occasionally, someone outside the company. We encourage you to establish a rapport with reporters so that they will come to you, not someone else, when they have a question about your firm or project. We want you to become known as a reliable and accurate resource.

Accuracy

If you are acting as a spokesperson for your company, it is important to be thoroughly informed of your company’s position on any given issue on any given day and to accurately reflect that point of view when talking to reporters. You should be given thorough briefings.
Accuracy, among other things, requires focus. It is important that you focus on your basic message and the issue at hand. You might, for example, want to make the point that: “XYZ Company has a unique understanding of the Information Technology needs within the Healthcare industry.” If so, make that point clearly and forcefully in your opening statement.
Do not be shy about repeating your message. The company’s messages are designed to be effective, concise, and clear, and it is important to deliver them at every opportunity.
Once you have delivered your core message a few times, you will find there are ways to come back to your basic points in response to just about any question. Do not evade a question, but do not hesitate to return to the point you want to make at every opportunity during an interview.

How to Succeed, Honestly

It is critical that you let reporters immediately know you are not trying to mislead them or to hide anything.
Reporters will always do what they can to protect and encourage a reliable source. If you gain a reputation as a reliable, honest provider of information who will help them do their job, they will treat you with respect.
Resist the temptation to share one reporter’s story with another reporter. This demonstrates your integrity. If a reporter develops a story and comes to you for information, respect that reporter’s right to the information. Do not ever give a reporter’s story away to another reporter, even if you perceive it as good news. The reporter receiving the information will accept it, certainly, but will also think less of you.

 

TALKING TO THE MEDIA

First Things First

When a reporter asks for an interview or has questions about a story, I suggest you establish right away what it is the journalist is looking for. It is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to ask such questions as: “What is the nature of the story you are working on?” “Where do we fit in?” “Is this a daily story, or a feature article?” “Who else is being interviewed?” “Do you need any background information from me?” and “What is your deadline?”
Do not be shy about seeking to learn as many of the reporter’s questions as possible during the initial call. This will help insure that you will be able to fully respond when you call back.
Do not feel obliged to answer any questions during the initial inquiry. Do feel obliged to get back to the reporter as quickly as possible. It is perfectly permissible to delay responding to questions until you’ve had a chance to check things out. But you should not delay indefinitely. You must call back promptly if you expect the reporter to come to rely on you. It doesn’t hurt to ask, “when is the deadline for me to get back to you?”

Be Brief

Reporters, particularly those who work for radio and television stations, are looking for colorful, clever, and succinct statements that can summarize their story. With newscasts clocked by the second and newspaper stories measured by the inch, long-winded comments get left out of the story. Using brief statements (ideally 20 seconds or shorter) will help reporters do their job and, what is more important, brief statements are the most effective method of communicating core messages through mass media. It may be beneficial to have a sound bite of no more than 30 seconds duration (the shorter the better) in mind before a scheduled interview or press conference begins.
The core messages, or variations of them, should be repeated as often as possible during a 30minute press conference, interview, or editorial board meeting. It is important that the messages be consistent and that they be conveyed in brief, well-formed statements.

Be Consistent

This is fairly obvious, but it bears stating nonetheless. If you tell a local reporter you are confident that no jobs will be lost as a result of, say, a merger, do not tell another reporter you are hopeful no jobs will be lost. If one reporter does not catch you in a flip-flop, or shading of a response, another one surely will.

Keep Your Sense Of Humor

Many reporters are skeptical people. If you show them you see some humor in what you are doing, that you have not forgotten how to laugh (especially at yourself), they just might see you as an interesting, real person, not someone trying to manipulate them for the sake of a good story. In addition, humor communicates self-confidence and shows that you are comfortable with whom you are and what you are doing. It is important to keep this in perspective and alway have it be appropriate and in good nature.

We’ll cover press conferences and more in part 2 of this series.

Matt Heintz

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