Holding A Press Conference
A press conference is a good opportunity to present, simultaneously, a significant story and an important official to a group of reporters.
Although press conferences are a good forum to deliver your message, they should only be scheduled for a significant announcement by a high official of the company. It should also be kept in mind that an element of risk exists in press conferences—in which competing reporters are asking questions—that does not exist in other forums.
After completing the statement or announcement, the official should permit reporters to ask questions about the issue. If desired, you or the presiding official can announce that there is time for a few questions in order to limit the question and answer period, though this should not be done gratuitously.
There is always a risk that you will schedule a press conference for one purpose and reporters, in the course of asking questions, will come away with another story, possibly a harmful one.
A sound practice for understanding and learning about press conferences is watching them. Take note of the best practices used and where they tend to go wrong. I make it a habit to watch white house press conferences and learn loads of information.
Note: If at all possible, try to include a visual aid at all press conferences that illustrates your points, especially if you expect television coverage.
Editorial Board Meetings
Editorial board meetings are another method of delivering your message while attempting to gain the support of a newspaper for your position. Similar in some ways to a press conference, it is important to be prepared with background information about the issue you are discussing and to have a clear message developed.
Usually, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, editorial writers, the managing editor, and a reporter will attend an editorial board meeting. The composition of the group varies; however, depending on the size of the paper, the amount of competing news the newspaper is working on in a given day, the level of interest in the story or the relevance and timeliness of the issue. In addition, other people on the paper’s staff may come and go throughout the meeting, so do not be distracted if people leave in the middle of an exchange.
Once the meeting begins, your company’s representative should be prepared to present a brief synopsis of why the meeting was requested. Ensure that your message is presented in the opening statement and re-iterated as often as possible throughout the session.
Above all else, remember that the purpose of an editorial board meeting is to solicit the newspaper’s editorial support for your issue, so do not forget to ask—in a straightforward, forthright way—for that support!
Do Not Answer If You Do Not Know
QUESTION: “How many press operatives does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
ANSWER: “Can I get back to you on that?”
Do not be afraid to ask a reporter for some time so that you can check a fact or detail, if you do not know the answer to a question. Your timely call back to the reporter, with accurate information, will be appreciated and will present an opportunity to re-emphasize your message.
If you do not know the answer to a reporter’s question:
Say so and offer to find the answer from within the company.
If you know an outside source or issues expert you are confident can give them the answer—and support your story—offer to have that source contact them
Never suggest that the reporter call your expert, always arrange for the expert to call the reporter. This is not only good manners, forewarning also reduces risk.
If you cannot respond to a question, explain why:
“It is under consideration.”
“It is still undecided.”
“That will be announced at a later date.”
“I have no comment.”
If you can, offer the reporter an indication of when you might be able to respond in greater detail, and then follow through on your promise.
Take the initiative during any session with reporters. Emphasize the points that you feel must be understood or taken into account. Use interesting examples that help tell your story. As you answer questions that tend to move away from your story, make transitions in an effort to bring the conversation back to what is most important to you.
Never forget—good reporters will not use a quote if you do not say it!
If you are interrupted, graciously acknowledge the interruption, but finish your point. Deduce why the reporter is interrupting—he or she may be excited (and, therefore, you may want to elaborate mor) or bored (therefore, shorten and focus your thoughts).
If you are asked negative questions, answer with positives. Move to the story you want to tell and stick to your message. (If asked, “Is your Company in trouble?” Don’t answer, “No, our Company is not in trouble.” Rather, say “Our company is in solid shape.”)
Relax, converse but always maintain message discipline. Remember that the way you use words is especially critical on the radio as there are no visual images to direct the listener’s imagination. Use words to create vivid imagery. Active verbs and anecdotes are crucial because they convey a visual image to listeners.
As in any interview, be ready to respond and know what you want to say; however, because there is no visual stimulus in radio, lengthy pauses (four seconds or more) are especially noticeable and may distract or bore the audience.
And, as in all interviews, remember to return to your basic message as often as possible.
Once you agree to an interview, there are a few things you can do to prepare yourself to become an effective spokesperson.
- Avoid flashy clothes for TV interviews. Loud patterns and bright colors will be distorted on camera. Avoid white. Blue fabrics work well on camera. Get someone to check your appearance before going on camera—teeth, make-up, hair etc. Since many interviews are unexpected, consider keeping a neutral jacket and crisp shirt in your office for such occasions.
- Don’t try to bribe—or bully—the media.
- Do keep your answers short. Television editors keep sound bites to around 8 seconds. Print reporters are looking for 15 words or less.
- Take time to anticipate the types of questions that the reporter will ask. Think about how you can answer the questions concisely and accurately. Sometimes it helps to write down your answers, read them out loud and in the case of a TV or print interview, practice your answers or message without your notes.
- Keep your speech relaxed and casual when speaking with the reporter.
- Before you start the interview, relax and take a deep breath! It will allow you to appear outwardly relaxed. For television interviews, remember to smile (when appropriate) and look at the reporter, not into the camera.
- Emphasize and re-emphasize your most important points. It is perfectly all right to repeat yourself, especially with the most important ideas you want to convey. You need to communicate those ideas as many ways as possible because you cannot be sure which statements or quotes a reporter will use. Take every opportunity to make the important points in different ways—using simple terms to which the person on the street can relate.
- ALWAYS be honest with the reporter. However, it is not necessary to volunteer more information than is needed, especially if you are unsure of the information.
- Do not speculate—stick to facts or answers that you know are true. If you are unsure of the answer to a reporter’s question, simply say, “I’m not sure, but I’ll look into that and will get back to you.” If you do not understand the question, ask the reporter until you are sure you are clear on the question.
- Be appropriately friendly and pleasant with the reporter, but also be sure that your mood reflects the circumstances surrounding the interview. For instance, if you are dealing with the aftermath of a tragic crisis situation, demonstrate compassion in your remarks to the reporter. In other situations, it would be appropriate to answer each question with a quiet smile. It will be the last thing the television viewers will see and will leave a positive impression with your audience.
- Resist the urge to express a personal viewpoint. It may not be the company’s point of view, but the reporter or the viewers may conclude that it is an official viewpoint. If you prepare someone else for an interview, be sure to emphasize this point with them.
- Remember that the interview is not over when the interview is over. Off-the-cuff remarks can happen after the last question has been asked, and they may well end up in the story. Remember that the interview is still going on until the reporter is physically gone. It is perfectly acceptable to accompany the reporter and/or the videographer around the office to make sure nothing goes awry after the official interview.
Understanding the Media
The “media” encompass both print and broadcast news organizations. Print media include daily and weekly newspapers, news wires, magazines and trade publications. Broadcast media include television and radio. Each of these news outlets can be used in a number of different ways to reach different audiences. To communicate with the media effectively, it is important to keep their goals in mind. These include:
- To inform;
- To advise;
- To entertain; and
- To make a profit.
Developing and maintaining a good relationship with the media is a valuable strategy. A competent, reliable source of credible information is a tremendous asset to a reporter. If you can become that source, you will have a better chance of controlling the message that eventually gets printed or broadcast. You will also have a better chance of weathering a crisis if your organization is already regarded as a “good corporate citizen” offering needed services. Good media relations will not only help you project the image you want to project, but also influence the development of public policy which can have such a big impact on a company.
Reporters from different media have different needs. Newspaper reporters need more information, for example, and may have more time to research a topic. They may also be more specialized and have more background knowledge. Television news reporters need a quick understanding and need something interesting for viewers to look at. Radio news reporters are often under the tightest deadlines. Understanding and meeting the different needs of the media help them get the story right. Try to keep these differences in mind. Here are some examples:
- Newspapers and Magazines – For most print media, your interviewer may be either a general assignment, health care or business reporter. You are still a long way from the reader; everything you say goes through the reporter first. Establish your credibility and improve your chances of being reported accurately by being knowledgeable and up-to-date so that the reporter believes and respects what you are saying. Always try to bring documentation with you, or offer to send it after the interview as soon as possible.
- Community, or weekly, newspapers are valuable but often overlooked media. They have a high readership rate, and tend to stay longer in the household for a higher “pass-along” rate. They look for highly localized information.
- Radio/Television News – Use short, easy-to-understand sentences and responses to questions. Practice explaining key messages in 30 seconds. (The interview may be 10 minutes, but the broadcast is likely to contain 10 seconds of what you said.) Generally, the shorter your sentences, the more your words make it to air without editing. The audience gets a chance to “eavesdrop” on a portion of your conversation.
- Remember the value of cable television stations. They often offer opportunities for local coverage of events or meetings. They also may have opportunities for you to appear as an expert source on an issues-oriented talk show.
Don’t Expect Questions Before the Interview
Asking a reporter for a list of questions before an interview sounds reasonable, right? After all, with a list of the reporter’s questions you can do all the proper research and come to the interview with great answers. So why did the reporter’s response sound so distant and cold when you asked? Maybe it’s because you’ve just committed a major faux pas of news interviewing.
What sounds reasonable to many people in business organizations often has a decidedly different ring in a reporter’s ears. Asking for a list of questions before an interview — especially requesting a complete set of interview questions — is a clear example. Yet business people agreeing to news interviews often make that mistake.
Sure, having the questions ahead of time would help you prepare. But requesting a list — especially a complete list — of questions is tantamount to telling a reporter that you are putting limits and restrictions on where the interview can go, the subjects to be covered, the topics to be discussed. At least, that’s the way reporters are likely to interpret the request. Following such a practice is bound to distance you from the reporter and will almost undoubtedly make the upcoming interview adversarial, two things you should be trying hard to avoid.
Keep in mind that in any interview with the news media, the roles for interviewer and interviewee are already well established. The reporter is responsible for the questions. Your one and only job is to provide answers, or better yet, to deliver messages that your audiences will find persuasive. If you have prepared properly, you should be able to deliver those messages regardless of the questions posed during the interview.
Is this a recommendation that you go into a news media interview unprepared, with no idea of where the reporter is going or of what will be asked? Is this to say that agreeing to a news media interview means submitting yourself to a reporter’s whim or bias? Certainly not. But there is a middle ground that business people sometimes overlook.
Before going eyeball to eyeball with any reporter, you should have a clear understanding of the story he or she is working on. You should be able to anticipate the questions that will be asked and know how you will respond to them. All these things can be determined before the interview without directly asking for a list of questions. If you recognize how the news interview game is played, you’ll be able to get all the pre-interview info you need, probably directly from the reporter.
For most serious reporters, success depends on the ability to use their most important tool: the question. If you demand questions in advance, then you appear to be trying to limit the reporter’s ability to do his or her job. Besides, much of the best information that comes from any given interview is a result of questions the reporter thinks of on the spot, most often as the result of something you’ve just said. If it appears before the interview that you are trying to drop a net on that, you’re likely to face one of the most grueling interviews of your career, assuming the reporter is still willing to talk with you at all.
The secret to a successful media interview is to convey key messages in a meaningful, positive way. You and your public relations team should prepare three to five messages that communicate key company or program issues. Remember, your goal is to communicate your agenda regardless of the interviewer’s agenda. As you develop messages with the assistance of your public relations team, keep in mind the following suggestions:
- Keep them short and clear, using 12-24 words that are crisp and high impact, to improve the odds of the reporter using them and the audience recalling them.
- Highlight the most important benefits of your company or program but make them relevant to your audience.
- Avoid jargon, acronyms and abbreviations by communicating technical issues in clear, easily understood terms.
- Always emphasize the affirmative and transition smoothly to supporting arguments.
- Use clear, simple examples to clarify your message in a positive manner.
Media Do’s and Don’t’s
You will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome by observing a few general guidelines for media interviews.
- Have a one-sentence message that you can communicate in 20 seconds or less, no matter what is asked.
- Talk in complete sentences, using words the public will understand.
- Offer information you want the public to know, even if the reporter doesn’t ask.
- Project a calm, alert, positive body posture by standing or sitting still and using comfortable, appropriate gestures.
- Look the interviewer in the eye.
- Never say, “No comment.” Instead, whenever possible explain why you can’t answer a question.
- Don’t let a reporter get away with misstatements. Politely correct them before you answer the question.
- Don’t say or do anything you don’t want repeated, even if you’re told it’s “off the record.”
- Don’t “over answer” a question by volunteering information.
- Don’t feel compelled to fill in silent pauses (that’s the reporter’s job).
- Never speculate outside your area of expertise, purview or known facts. Instead, tell the reporter you won’t speculate and then bridge to your messages.
- Don’t let reporters start an argument with you. Instead, look and sound calm and controlled.
- Don’t fidget in your chair or with any stage or podium props.
- Don’t look at the ground, sky or camera during your responses since this will be interpreted by the audience as inattentive or evasive body language.
- Don’t use jargon, highly technical terms or acronyms nor abbreviations.
If you find yourself in the media spotlight, there are a few techniques that can help ensure you communicate your key points successfully. Use the following to help you steer the questions in the direction you want to go:
Bridging. Answer a direct question briefly then smoothly transition, or bridge, back to one of your key messages.
Flagging. Underscore the importance of certain points or concepts in your responses with a distinct hand gesture or phrase, or flag, such as “The most important thing to understand is ….”
Hooking. Before and after the interview, try to arouse, or hook, the interviewer’s curiosity by bringing up topics on your agenda. Often, this simple “hook” will lead to questions that flow nicely into your messages.
Repeating. During the interview, repeat your key messages as often as possible to increase the chances your audience will recall them. This also ensures your interviewer will remember them clearly as well.
Another useful technique is to take advantage of your unique business experiences to lend credence to your messages. For instance, you might share your knowledge of medicine without having to disclose any sensitive information. This helps establish your credibility with the audience, regardless of the interviewer’s attitude.
It is also important to come across sincerely when sharing personal anecdotes. You don’t want to appear to be boasting or bragging, behaviors which might lessen your credibility.
Tips: Media Interviews
Preparation – Confidence, Control and Credibility
- Define your agenda. Clarify your communication objective(s).
- Determine how the interview might offer you the chance to make positive points or provide helpful information about your topic/issue/organization.
- Write down and practice key message points in brief statements or bullet points.
- Remove jargon or long explanations.
- Have back up data to support your points if appropriate. Review facts and figure so you are comfortable discussing them.
- Anticipate questions (easy, hard and terrible) and your responses. Practice with a colleague or in front of the mirror (yes, it looks silly, but heck, it is worth it!) Are you planning to talk about the same thing the reporter expects to discuss?
- Get to know the media outlet — what type of publication or program is it? Who is their target audience? What other media outlet is covering the story
- What is the interview format? Length? Live? Taped? Solo or multi-guests?
- If you are part of a group, make sure everyone has the same message!
- If you are meeting with more than one media outlet, make sure your message is consistent with each reporter.
The day before your interview confirm date, time, place and anticipated length of interview.
Arrival, Location and Pre-Interview
- Allow plenty of time for the unexpected (no parking space, traffic, flood…)
- Arrive at the media outlet 5-10 minutes early. Expect to wait!
- If interview is at your office, be prepared early and have all calls and interruptions held.
- If the interview is in your office, tidy up. Put away piles of papers and clutter.
- Try not to be interviewed behind your desk as it creates a barrier between you and the reporter.
- Pre-interviews – some reporters spend up to 30 minutes prior to an interview warming up the subject. Some spend 5 seconds! Take the opportunity to find out what the reporter is looking for and set the tone for the interview.
- Do ask when a story or article is going to be run.
- Don’t ask to pre-approve a story.
We’ll cover tips and tricks in part 3
Also published on Medium.