Media relations 101: Tips for a successful interview with the press

microphones-interviewsGood publicity is literally something you can’t buy. And an interview with a member of the press is one of your main gateways to good publicity.

The problem? When conducting an interview, there’s always the risk that your words will be misconstrued, taken out of context, or used against you to mean something other than what you intended. Or you could just get yourself in trouble by saying really stupid things.

But if you follow the rules of conducting a successful interview, you will minimize that risk and get the maximum benefit from publicity.

First off, here’s some background information you should know about reporters and the interview process. When reporters conduct interviews, they are looking for a few things:

1) They’re looking for direct quotes. These are things they will insert into the story which infuse a human voice and add a sense of life.

2) They’re also looking for background information on the subject at hand. This information may not make its way into the story, but it will help them understand the subject matter and help them frame it better.

3) Lastly, they’re looking for supporting material that will be used in the story, but won’t be directly quoted.

Other things that may come out of an interview include future story ideas. Something you say may inspire a reporter to pursue something down the road and consult you as a source, so keep this in mind.

Another thing to remember is that reporters want to conduct an interview in the least amount of time possible. This does not mean that a reporter wants to conduct the fast food version of a conversation. But this does mean that reporters are busy, and they don’t necessarily have three hours to sit down and chat. They want information, but they want it as quickly as they can get it.

That said, here are some Dos and Don’ts for conducting a successful interview with a member of the press.

DO be available for an interview.

Reporters are extremely busy. Respect their time. Don’t make them call you four times before you return a call. Don’t make them hire a private investigator to devise your whereabouts. Call or write back as soon as you can, preferably the same day.

DO realize that a bad reporter can misconstrue your words, and will likely do this.

Have some familiarity with the reporter you’ll be speaking to before you agree to do the interview. What is the quality of their past work? Are they known for needlessly trashing people? Are they objective and fair?

Also, find out the nature of the story they’re working on, and where you fit into it. Remember, you have a choice about whether or not to be interviewed. If you think the potential drawbacks outweigh the benefits, kindly decline.

DO your homework.

Sometimes the reporter will call you in advance to set up an interview. Sometimes they may call on the spot and want to talk right then, depending on the nature of the story. If you set an interview up in advance, do your homework and know what you want to say. You don’t need to create a script and rehearse your answers, but at the very least spend a few minutes thinking about the main points you want to get across.

DO answer the questions asked. DO NOT talk endlessly and answer questions that weren’t asked.

It may seem like a simple concept, but you’d be surprised how many people manage to complicate this. When you are asked a question, answer it thoroughly. Do not give a half-answer to a question the reporter asked, then drone on endlessly about something the reporter hasn’t asked about.

And don’t try to control the questions – that is the reporter’s job. It is your job to control the answers. Let the reporter pursue the topic as they like.

Side note: If you feel the reporter has missed something really important in the interview, mention it briefly at the end. However, a good reporter will usually ask if there’s anything else you’d like to say or add at the end of the interview.

DO speak slowly enough for the reporter to keep up.

I’m not suggesting you speak in slow motion. But I have conducted interviews with people that literally made themselves breathless with how fast they spoke. Besides it being unnerving, it was impossible to keep up with what they are saying. Keep in mind that the reporter is trying to keep track of what you say, so speak at a comfortable pace that allows them to do that.

DO try to conduct the interview in person, as opposed to over the phone.

Obviously this won’t work if the reporter is in California and you’re in Massachusetts, but if at all possible, try to meet face to face, perhaps via Skype. You will make a more significant impact if they can see you and get a better sense of who you are.

DO tell the truth.

This means: Do not embellish the truth, do not alter the truth, do not hide the truth, and do not outright lie. Besides the fact that you will be found out, your credibility destroyed and the whole purpose of the interview demolished, reporters can see right through someone who is hiding something or hyping themselves up with bloated claims. A human voice is much more compelling than some fluffed up nonsense.

If there is a question that you really don’t want to answer because the truth would be damaging, just decline to comment. This “no comment” should be used sparingly, as it makes you look shifty. But it’s better than digging yourself into a hole.

DO NOT rattle off technical words and phrases to make yourself look intelligent.

You’ll just tech-talk your way right out of the story. Remember that reporters are not experts in the field you’re an expert in. Respect that fact, and speak in terms they can understand. Present your information clearly and simply and keep in mind that reporters always like quotes because they offer a human touch to the story, so speak in a quote-friendly voice that’s intelligent and natural, not stiff and academic.

DO NOT put reporters on hold while conducting the interview, unless you absolutely have to, and even then, do it only once.

Reporters are busy and this is a waste of their time.

DO NOT tell a reporter something “off the record” unless you really trust that reporter.

A good reporter should respect their interviewee and keep anything said “off the record” actually off the record. But some reporters will use that off-limits information anyway. Be sure you know who’s interviewing you and whether or not you can trust them before you say anything you wouldn’t want the general public to know.

DO NOT tell the reporter what to put into the story.

If you want to be a reporter, apply for a job as one. If not, let the reporter do their job and decide what goes into the story, and do your job by supplying them with the information they’re looking for.

And again, as a reminder:
DO speak candidly, straight from the heart.

Cut to the chase and be straightforward. Provide valuable information, but in an understandable, human, non-robotic way. Do allow your sentences to end. Do allow the reporter to get a word in edgewise.

Follow these rules and you’ll at least garner yourself some small measure of good publicity. At most you could have the press coming back to you on a regular basis as a reliable source of information.

If you have any questions on this topic or would like one-on-one PR coaching, email me or find out more here.

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