Given the potential downside in dealing with the media, it is not surprising that few executives really look forward to dealing with the press. The possibility of saying something you will regret, being misquoted or simply sounding unintelligible are major reputation concerns. But like most risks, this can be managed with proper preparation.
By doing so, many executives are able to leverage media opportunities for their benefit and. in turn, gain valuable exposure that solidifies the company’s position as a leader and expert in its industry.
Undoubtedly, there will be certain media requests that just do not make good business sense to comply with. It is often said that any press is good press for a movie star, but this is clearly not the case in the business world.
But for those interviews that will likely generate favorable public relations exposure for your company, there are certain guidelines that will greatly enhance the probability that the company will be perceived in a positive light.
Before the Interview
To be an effective communicator, you need to know your audience. For starters, make sure you know who the interviewer is, the focus of the planned story, which publication it will appear in and who the audience is. If you do not have access to resources that provide background information on reporters and publications, check to see if the publication has a website where you can search for readership information. You can also call the publication directly to find out what “beat” the reporter covers, such as a specific industry (e.g., insurance, health care), function (e.g., HR, accounting) or issue (e.g., the economy, education). Searching news databases such as Factiva or Google News can uncover some of the reporter’s recent articles, which can give you a sense of how the reporter likes to approach a story.
It is fair game to ask reporters in advance what topics they want to cover in an interview, although you should keep in mind that these are not necessarily set in stone. Some reporters–more likely from trade publications–will even agree to provide questions in advance. Find out whether the reporter is working under a deadline, which is often the case, as this will determine how quickly you will need to conduct the interview or provide any information that you promise to deliver.
Then, start thinking about how to play to your audience. Based on what you have learned about the reporter and interview topic, write down the three to four key messages that you most want to get across in the interview and ideally see in print. (Yes, writing them down is important so that you can refer to these messages easily during the interview to help keep you on track.)
Developing key messages will help you organize and articulate your thoughts and form the basis of your talking points for the interview. Your messages should be clear, to the point and expressed in plain business English. They should also be directed to the reporter’s readership. For example, if the publication is widely read by risk managers, you should craft your messages so they will resonate with a risk manager. Your messages should also support the company’s positioning, because in any interview, you are serving as your company’s spokesperson and not simply expressing your own opinion.
In preparing these messages, you might consider “Googling” the interview topic to see what others in your field have been saying and what other reporters have already written on that topic. Chances are, the reporter has Googled it too.
Finally, think about the questions that might come up in the interview–especially those that you hope not to hear. By preparing for these questions in advance, particularly the potentially “radioactive” ones, you will give yourself time to develop appropriate responses, and get help from your company’s corporate communications or legal staff as needed.
Controlling the Interview
Are you ready for the interview? While there are no guarantees as to what the reporter will choose to write about and whether your remarks will be included in the article, there are ways you can increase your chances of gaining positive media coverage, avoiding potential hot spots and laying the foundation for a mutually productive relationship with the reporter. Here are 10 things you can do to get off to a good start and influence the direction of the interview:
1. Help the reporter. Many reporters are generalists, not specialists. Therefore, they cover a wide range of issues to varying degrees, so do not be put off if the reporter’s has a low-level understanding of an interview topic. Patiently answer even the most basic questions. To set the right tone, you can briefly describe what you and your company do, even if you have already provided this information beforehand.
2. Be enthusiastic and helpful. Maintain a positive, friendly attitude no matter how you feel about the reporter and the approach taken to the interview. Be generous with your time as well. Nothing sends a worse signal than unexpectedly cutting the interview short or taking phone calls during the time allotted for discussion.
3. Stay on message. Look for opportunities to state those three to four key messages you developed before the interview. You can segue into these talking points with opening lines like, “We see a trend toward …,” or “Something we still haven’t talked about vet is …”
4. Stay focused. If you catch yourself going off on a tangent, get yourself back on course. Interrupt yourself and refocus the discussion with a phrase like “What’s really important here …” or “The point I want to make is …”
5. Be ready for reporter techniques. Do not be fooled by the seemingly casual question that comes up after the interview is presumably over. Be especially alert for the questions that may come near the end of the interview when you are more relaxed and your guard is down. These are often the toughest questions and the ones that reporters most want answered.
6. Don’t answer hazardous questions. Reporters often ask questions that they do not really expect will be answered just on the off chance that they might get a response. It is perfectly acceptable to say that you do not know the answer to a question or that you are not an expert in a particular area. You can always offer to get more information after the interview is over or put the reporter in touch with someone at your company who can answer the questions that you cannot.
7. Avoid going off the record. Never say anything to a reporter that you do not want to see in print. If there are “radioactive” issues surrounding your company that you think may be raised but you do not want to address, establish ground rules before the interview with the reporter about what you are willing or unwilling to discuss. Providing information to a reporter on an unnamed or background basis is a strategy that PR professionals sometimes employ but mostly under specific circumstances and in a very controlled fashion.
8. Don’t answer with “no comment.” If you are unable to comment on a specific company or development, perhaps because of client confidentiality issues, explain this to a reporter and help him understand instead the broader implications for the industry (“Here’s what it means for the rest of the industry …”). Or, if you are asked a question that you simply cannot answer, you do have choices in your response. You can redirect the conversation by saying, “Actually, the real question is …” and segue to a question that you feel more comfortable answering. You can explain that it is not your company’s policy to comment on rumor or speculation and wait for the next question. Or, you can simply ignore the question and bridge to one of your key messages, by saying “The point I want to make is …”
9. Bring your PR representative. Whenever possible, have the person in charge of media relations sit in on the interview, even if by phone. Having a third party listening in on the interview serves several useful purposes. The PR rep can redirect the interview for you if it starts to head in the wrong direction. He or she can also make sure any follow-up with the reporter, such as providing additional information, is handled promptly and help keep the interview flowing in the right direction by asking questions and raising issues that the reporter did not address but you were hoping to have an opportunity to discuss.
10. Stay alert, but not defensive. Most reporters, especially at trade publications, are not out to catch you off guard or make you look uninformed. In many cases, they will be looking to you as a subject matter expert who can provide qualified insight and perspective. While you always need to be careful not to divulge information that may be seen as a breach of confidentiality by your colleagues or clients, you should approach interviews that have been appropriately vetted as excellent opportunities for enhancing visibility and building credibility in the marketplace.
Building on the Interview
Presuming you get through the interview in one piece, there are still a few things you can do afterwards that will help advance your interests and strengthen your ties with the reporter. First, be sure to follow through promptly with any promises to provide information, respecting the reporter’s deadline. Even if the reporter ends up not using the information, your efforts will be appreciated and the reporter will be more inclined to approach you again as a dependable, credible source
Second, do not ask to see the article or your quotes in advance of publication. Reporters cringe when they are approached with this request and often take offense. While some may reluctantly comply, it will come at a cost. Eventually, the reporter will replace you with an expert commentator who will not ask to see quotes in advance. Some reporters do, in fact, routinely forward article excerpts and quotes for fact-checking and accuracy, but the decision to do so should be at the reporter’s discretion, not per your request.
You can always offer to answer additional questions that may arise after the interview, which may prompt the reporter to give you an opportunity to review what he has written before publication. But if you really have a problem with this issue, then you should not agree to the interview in the first place. Or, if you want to make sure your message does not get skewed, you should consider writing bylined articles instead.
Finally, get your public relations staff involved in the post-interview follow-up. After the interview, it is always good practice to have your PR representative circle back with the re porter to see if he or she has additional questions or information needs. This is an excellent opportunity to get feedback on the interview. Also, if you are not happy with the interview for any reason, it will be less confrontational to let the PR person investigate what can be done, if anything.
Generating positive coverage for you and your company in the publications read and respected by your key audiences, such as clients, employees and investors, is a high-impact way of getting your marketing messages across. But it can also be a stressful and sometimes perilous experience if you and your PR team fail to complete the due diligence required in any media situation. No one, no matter how experienced, should attempt to interview on the fly. But if you prepare for the interview and provide timely information that the reporter can use, everyone’s needs, especially your own, can be served.