Media opportunities don’t come around every day. Lack of experience and preparation can turn an opportunity into a debacle. Here are traps to avoid, and tips to make sure you — and your message — come across.
Many executives make the mistake of viewing the interview as another “platform” for pitching and positioning, rather than going into it as a dialogue whose purpose and direction is defined by the interviewer. Lacking the fundamental understanding that, in most cases, the participants don’t have equal standing, can lead an executive spokesperson to make any of the following unintended — and highly unfortunate — impressions:
1. The 5:15
The executive who does a passing imitation of a runaway train, rattling off interminable answers at breakneck speed.
2. The O’Reilly
When an overly aggressive subject lambastes the competition or takes the reporter’s publication to task for “slanted” coverage (to name just two possible irritants).
3. The Merv
Named for the fabled, now largely forgotten talk show host renowned for his fawning, this applies to the relentlessly ingratiating interviewee…it can also take the form of mindless, digressive schmoozing.
4. The Warhol
The executive who repeats several stock phrases over, and over, and over again.
5. The Martha
The endlessly controlling interviewee who always restates the question and, essentially, conducts her own interview.
6. The Arnold
Named for the body builder turned movie star turned governor, this describes the executive intent on dominating the interview by force of will and a brutal, unstoppable charm offensive.
Here are a few tips that will enable you to avoid any of these very avoidable scenarios, and help prepare you for your media close-up:
• Do not assume the interview will closely follow what the reporter/editor initially described. First and foremost: listen! In most instances, the reporter will have the general outlines of the story in place and is looking for expert sources to either support or contest the central premises. It is imperative that you go into the interview with a full understanding of the reporter’s interest, if possible, getting a sense of how many other subjects the reporter has spoken with — that will give you an idea of how much the reporter’s original premise has held up or the extent it’s been challenged. Then it’s a matter of intently listening to each question — easier said than done when you’re feeling pressure to get your message across knowing every word is being recorded (as is usually the case), and you have maybe 20 minutes allotted to get it all in. Respect that the reporter has an agenda and needs to gather specific information during the interview. As a result, don’t digress from the subject matter — it’s counterproductive and reduces your credibility. If you have a relevant point to make that the reporter has not touched on, say something such as, “I think your readers might also be interested in knowing that…” Pursue the point if the reporter is interested. You make the reporter’s job easier by providing insightful information and a fresh perspective.
• If you’re responding by email, try striking a balance between formal and familiar — avoid answers that sound overly rehearsed or overly casual. Some reporters will give you the choice of conducting the interview by phone or email, others simply prefer email. In most cases, email is a better option as it gives you more time to think through and edit your responses and share them with colleagues for input. There are exceptions, however — if you’ve met the interviewer at a trade show you’ll want to maintain the personal connection and do the interview by phone, even Skype.
• Don’t use an interview as an advertising platform for your company or its offerings. Nothing will irritate a reporter more than unnecessary plugs. The exception is if the article is a product review, company profile, or in cases where discussing your company and what it does speaks directly to the topic at hand. In almost all cases, your company name and brief description of its featured items will appear along with your quote. And if the reporter doesn’t ask, offer to verify the spelling of your name and the company’s, along with providing your title.
• Avoid overly technical terms or industry jargon. Although you may be interviewed on a complex or detailed subject, never assume that the reporter or the audience is as well-versed as you are in the lexicon of your trade. Spell out acronyms and use illustrations, examples and comparisons when possible to clarify your point.
• There’s no such thing as off-the-record. You may feel an instant rapport with your interviewer, but don’t let your guard down — avoid saying anything that you and your company don’t want to see in print.
• Prepare a few key points that you want to communicate. Unless you’re being chased down by a crew from 60 Minutes, your interview will be scheduled and you will know in advance the topic that you’ll be discussing. Winging it is generally not a good idea. Your talking points should be as concise as possible since a few quotable sentences may be all the reporter uses. And since it’s impossible to anticipate every potential question, remember that it’s okay to say that you don’t know and offer to follow-up after the interview and provide the reporter with the information.
• Whether your interview is being typed or taped, speak slowly and clearly. To ensure accuracy, give the reporter plenty of time to process and digest your information. Pause periodically and try to keep your answers brief and to the point. It’s okay to ask the reporter if he or she would like you to elaborate or clarify.
- Finally, when the reporter asks, “Do you have anything to add?” at the conclusion of the interview, have — well, something to add. One technique is to offer a brief summary of your talking points, which, in effect, provides a conclusion that the reporter might be able to use. However, don’t repeat the interview verbatim — try to frame the information from a different perspective. Also, tell the reporter that you are available for any follow-up questions.
You can maximize your media exposure by requesting a copy of the article when it’s published. Post it to your company’s Web site or order reprints to be distributed in marketing collaterals (Remember to ask about reprint rights and possible fees). Most people naturally want to know if they will be able to review an article before it appears in print. Unfortunately, the answer is almost always no. Deadline pressure and journalistic practice often precludes reporters from providing copies for review. That’s why it’s important to prepare, take your time, listen and stay on point. On the rare occasion that a reporter does provide a courtesy copy for review before publication, make any necessary clarifications and return it promptly — with an emphasis on promptly!