How to obtain more positive press…
Every veteran PR person has a few instructive stories about staffing high-profile media interviews. Some stories have happy endings — while others, well…not so much. Thus, before getting to the 10 tips below, let’s go behind the scenes of two memorable interviews I staffed to fine tune the context.
The first story had a happy ending. I was staffing a taped interview for a federal agency chairwoman with “60 Minutes” of CBS News — the influential and long running top-rated TV news show. The correspondent was the legendary broadcaster Mike Wallace (father to Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday”).
I can still hear the iconic TV correspondent prepping his vocal chords in varying tones just before the cameras rolled: “La, La, La…”
The interview was going well until Mike asked the agency chairwoman a perplexing legal question which caused her to panic. She was not a lawyer but had been briefed by the agency’s office of legal counsel.
However, I also made sure a staff attorney was in the room during the interview, just in case. That’s because in the world of PR and media relations you have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
The chairwoman grew visibly agitated with the camera rolling and froze like a proverbial deer in the headlights. “Where are my lawyers!” she screamed.
That’s when I stepped in to pause the interview. Fortunately, Mike and his producer were very understanding, which is not always the case with big TV personalities. Thus, I got the chairwoman to calm down and step away for a minute to speak with the staff attorney.
Fortunately, the chairwoman got it right when the taping resumed.
When the story finally aired, her gaffe was omitted. Moreover, it turned out to be a rare favorable story by 60 Minutes regarding a federal government agency — whereas most stories take the government to the “woodshed” over alleged malfeasance and reports by whistleblowers.
Whew! Mission accomplished.
John Stossel Strikes Again
On the flipside, I recall another time when it turned out differently. The taped interview was being conducted with the flamboyant and showboating TV correspondent, John Stossel.
We didn’t exactly trust the TV program, ABC News “20/20” — much less Stossel (pictured above)— due to their reputation for hit job stories on the government. Nevertheless, the decision was made for the agency chairman to conduct the interview. All the pre-interview terms had been agreed upon after a long tug-of-war with the show.
Then the interview day arrived and the two men sat down in the chairman’s office at agency headquarters. But as the camera rolled, Stossel played the bad actor for which he was infamously known.
He asked the chairman a loaded question which we specifically agreed would not be asked on camera. Obviously, the chairman refused to answer.
That’s when Stossel surprisingly threw his clipboard in the air, with arms raised to show purported shock, and berated the chairman for not knowing the answer.
It was at that point the chairman grew angry and pointedly told Stossel the interview was over. He got up and walked away as the camera continued to roll with Stossel looking on.
The resulting story aired the entire debacle rather than editing it out. This had obviously been a setup, in hindsight.
In the years ahead, Stossel departed ABC News for Fox News Channel, as rumors swirled that he was fired or forced out over allegations of factually inaccurate reporting and dismissing basic journalism standards.
Let’s face it, speaking to the news media can be a tricky business which most people dread. This is especially true if you’re not a PR practitioner or a professional communicator.
Moreover, if you happen to be the CEO of a company then it’s likely your job to interact with the news media — whether traditional, digital, social or otherwise.
The media views CEOs as the face of the company, literally and figuratively
Whether a CEO goes on camera or video streams on Sykpe, they should be sending a clear, coordinated and strategic message to buttress the brand. Meanwhile, some journalists might be ultra aggressive during an interview and set traps along the way. But don’t fall prey to media mishaps.
While the media tips below are absolutely essential for executive leaders and managers, they can likewise be applied down the corporate ladder.
Just remember that you are speaking for a company which employs hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of people, has a large consumer base, and has a well defined brand image to protect and maintain. That’s why preparation is paramount.
First Steps to Prep
Following are the initial steps to take in laying the groundwork to prepare for a media interview — one which, hopefully, will result in positive press for you and the organization you represent.
Step 1. Agree to the story angle and focus…
First, you should request a pre-interview phone call with any media outlet to discuss the parameters and terms of the interview. You may even want to request advance questions or topic areas.
Although many media outlets prohibit reporters from providing questions in advance, not all do. Thus, it never hurts to ask because the more prepared you are, the more likely your media interview will be successful.
Step 2. Provide substantive background info…
This is especially relevant if no pre-interview exchange has been arranged. Comprehensive background info will serve as a preface to the main points you plan on making during the media interview. Remember that not all reporters are subject matter experts and some must juggle multiple beats in a fast and fluid news environment.
Always help educate reporters about “hot button” issues from your organization’s perspective.
This practical and prudent approach may help deflect negative or loaded questions in advance, as well as set the stage to make your case in the strongest and most persuasive manner.
Step 3. Anticipate likely questions and answers…
This is especially necessary if the reporter rejects your request for advance questions or fails to provide appropriate information about the angle and focus of their story.
Think about what points and counter-points you want to make? What headline would you like to see?
Don’t ever just “wing it” with media interviews, or the resulting story may cause more harm than good.
Perfecting the Prep
Once you have accomplished the aforementioned initial three steps of this process then move on to the following:
Step 4. Draft talking points…
This should be done in consultation with legal, policy and communications experts within your organization.
Make sure to include at least two to three major talking points which you want reflected in the resulting story.
Putting your points down on paper will serve as a vital reference during and after the interview, in addition to enhancing your focus and comfort level.
Step 5. Develop proof points…
These are statistics and anecdotes to support your main talking points. Don’t just explain your points to reporters, but also provide factual evidence or tell a story to reinforce the validity of your main message. Leverage data and show trends.
Step 6. Establish a rapport with the media…
Find out some personal information about the journalist interviewing you. How long have they been with the media outlet? What was the last story he/she reported on?
Any sincere praise or recognition you can offer a journalist will often smooth relations going forward. Thus, review their recent reporting.
Perhaps there are some common interests you share or related personal background information — such as where you grew up, went to school, etc. This will help lay the foundation for positive media relations by forging common ground on a direct human level.
Step 7. Practice, practice, practice…
If you’re a native New Yorker, like me, you may recall the answer to this famous question, How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.
Rehearse your answers and do a mock interview with the communications team in your organization.
If you are conducting a broadcast interview then video tape and review your likely responses — even practice in front of a mirror.
Also recall that many types of communication are non-verbal in nature.
You want to avoid any awkward or embarrassing physical gestures, such as ducking out of the camera to grab a water bottle and taking a big gulp on live TV (as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida once did while delivering his party’s official response to a State of the Union address).
What to Remember
Okay, you’ve done your leg work and are now ready for the big interview. Take a deep breath, stay calm, cool and remember that YOU are in control.
Step 8. Take charge of the interview…
Don’t let the media dictate the interview. Rather, deflect and deflate questions you don’t want to answer by reiterating your main points.
Repetition of your main points is key, especially on camera, even if you sound like a broken record.
Moreover, don’t feel compelled to respond to negative or loaded questions. Rather, respond with a deflecting statement, such as those listed below. Then repeat your key talking points and proof points (data/anecdotes/stories). Some examples of deflecting statements include:
- “Let’s look at this issue from a broader perspective…”
- “There is an equally important concern here…”
- “Let’s not forget the underlying problem at hand…”
- “That point may have some validity, however, let’s look at this a different way…”
Step 9. Ask that a question be repeated or restated...
This is especially important if questions are unclear, loaded or surprising.
You may need a few seconds to formulate your answer if unprepared for the question.
You may also give your answer a second time as new thoughts and points may surface during the interview. To repeat or expand on an answer already given, use some of the following phrases:
- “In addition to what I noted before…”
- “On second thought, let me provide a more complete response…”
- “Please scratch what I said earlier, what I meant was…” (for non-live interviews only).
- “Let’s go over your second question again. I want to point out that…”
Step 10. Maintain eye contact and avoid distracting gestures.
Focus on either the interviewer (preferably) or the camera, webcam, etc. — but not both. Do not glance away or shift your eyes from side to side.
Do not fold your arms or talk with your hands, as this looks defensive and awkward. If needed, keep your hands tightly clasped on your lap.
Most importantly, always maintain focus and appear confident, calm, cool and collected. Reporters may detect weakness like sharks smelling blood in the water.
Don’t give a reporter hellbent on sensationalism the chance to go for the kill.
Despite what some people tout as “conventional wisdom,” honest journalism is not dead yet. Nevertheless, the media landscape has radically changed from prior decades.
Moreover, you still never know when an interview may turn into an ambush. Therefore, use the following advice at your discretion if an interview turns ugly:
Sometimes a reporter or producer will relentlessly pound away at you with highly negative questions during a pre-recorded interview.
In this case, you may need to simply stop the interview in midstream and walk away.
Don’t simply give into biased questions and provide the answers they want (at your expense) — which may be detrimental to your message and organizational brand.
Rely on the expert judgment of any communications aide who is staffing the interview.
It’s the communications staff who are more familiar with the reporter, media outlet and any history of covering your organization. Therefore, as an absolute last resort, call off the interview if it turns into a game of “gotcha.”
If the reporter broke an advance interview agreement, then the reporter does not deserve an interview. The story is likely to be negative anyway. Thus, show some spine and self-respect by ending it prematurely.
Again, this might be necessary if a reporter or producer continually asks questions that both sides previously agreed would not be asked, or if a reporter engages in unprofessional conduct and interrogations.
As I’ve previously written: despite a conspicuous shift in the media landscape caused by the 21st century Information Age, tens of millions of Americans still consume news that is originally reported and produced by traditional media. Further, a majority of Americans still get their news via TV (on average for all age groups), according to Pew Research Center.
Thus while it remains important to focus on maximizing social media, today’s public relations (PR) pros and professional communicators should also not forget about traditional news media (also known as “legacy media” or “old media”).
Old media still plays a vital role in modern journalism.
Therefore, by adhering to the aforementioned 10 points (and bonus point) you will be ready to face the so-called “Media Beast” head on, especially on camera. You will be able to leverage any media interviews to make the best case for yourself, your organization and brand.
It’s important not to fall into the trap of a prolonged interview in which only limited or negative information is used in the final story. You might initially be satisfied with the interview before your words are sliced and diced — or even taken out of context — to fit a biased media narrative or agenda.
You might only make one mistake in a half-hour interview, yet that’s what could appear in the story.
That’s why repeating your main points makes sense. Don’t feel obliged to answer loaded questions or be goaded into a trap by unscrupulous reporters. Be smart and stick to the game plan.
Try to control the direction of the interview rather than letting the interview control you.
And, finally, don’t forget to smile for the camera.
You also might like…
- How Mark Zuckerberg Got Schooled in Crisis Communications
- Media Relations 101: Why Transparency Always Triumphs
- Media Relations 101: How Access Begets Accuracy
- Media Relations 101: The Relationship, Stupid
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a strategic communications consultant, freelance writer and former federal government spokesman based in the Washington, DC-area. His work experience includes the White House, Congress, OMB and EEOC. A native New Yorker, David was a journalist prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.