By Henry Stimpson APR
Published in Henry Stimpson’s PR and Marketing Tips
When a reporter interviews you or your spokesperson as an expert, he or she isn’t going to ask trick questions. The reporter is simply looking to an expert to help illuminate a complex issue—and to fill out the story with some lively quotes.
Most reporters are smart, ask good questions and write reasonably accurate stories. Your job is to explain a complex topic as clearly and vividly as possible.
Your interview may be with a reporter who’s very knowledgeable about the field or one who’s inexperienced, but eager to learn. Most journalists are smart, but once in a while, you might get one who’s obtuse. If you happen to get stuck with one, there are ways to cope as explained below.
Preparing For the Interview
Understand the outlet’s audience. Who reads or views it? You need just a sentence in your mind about the publication’s audience.
Find out what the reporter wants to know. Most reporters will give you their questions before the interview or indicate in general what they are after if you ask.
Think about what you want to say before you interview. Define two or three main points you would like to make about your subject. Gather facts, figures, and anecdotes to support your points. If you can, anticipate follow up questions the reporter might ask and have responses ready.
Send something in writing if it helps and the reporter wants it. If you have a relevant article you’ve written, statistics or PowerPoint that offers valuable background, send it to the reporter. Ask before sending. Don’t overdo it—one to a few documents at most, unless the reporter requests more. This is optional.
During the Interview
Answer the reporter’s questions. This may sound obvious, but not everyone does so. State the most important information first—then provide background if needed.
Use professional or technical jargon only as needed. If you’re talking to a writer from a trade publication, you can use technical terminology, of course—but even here, don’t use it more than needed. If you’re talking to a reporter from a consumer or general-business outlet, go light on terminology and explain any buzzwords the reporter doesn’t know.
Listen for cues that show that the reporter is—or isn’t—getting it. Don’t assume the reporter’s knowledge of your subject—it may be excellent or nonexistent or somewhere in the middle. If a journalist doesn’t fully understand you, it will show up in his or her line of questioning. Probe a little if you sense the reporter may be confused by an answer. Try explaining a point differently. If a reporter bases questions on information you believe is incorrect, do not hesitate to politely set the record straight.
Being colorful helps. When appropriate, tell anecdotes that illustrate your point and give examples. Using similes and metaphors adds color.
If you stick you foot in your mouth, you can pull it out without a problem. It’s unlikely, but if something came out wrong, just ask the reporter, “Could you scratch that? What I meant to say is ___________________.”
Don’t ask to review the story before it’s published. But if the reporter offers to send it to you for fact checking, accept the offer and offer corrections if the reporter has some facts wrong. But don’t try to rewrite your quotes unless they’re inaccurate.
Going “off the record” should be rare. Don’t do it unless you have a really good reason—like some truly tantalizing bit of insider knowledge you don’t want attributed to you—and feel confident the reporter will honor your request. Ask first if the reporter is willing to go off the record, and once you get firm agreement you can make any off-the-record remarks. Once you’re done and have answered any follow-up questions, say, “OK, now we’re back on the record.”
When do you need media training?
For routine, non-adversarial print media interviews, it’s rarely needed. Television is different, though, because what you look and sound like makes a difference.
If you do need presentation training for a big TV or radio interview or even a key business meeting, our affiliate, Diane Ripstein, can help you out. She’s one of the best media and presentation trainers around.
Henry Stimpson, APR, “PR Czar” at emersongroup, provides public relations, marketing communications and writing services to our client organizations in a wide range of industries. He has ghostwritten hundreds of articles and placed them in publications of all types, including The New York Times, and has written under his own name for The Boston Globe, Yankee and numerous trade publications. To contact Henry, click here.