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Tips for Effective Media Interviews
If your position, professional or volunteer, has a high-profile in your community, the media will seek you out for a comment. When it happens, are you prepared to represent your organization effectively in an environment where a :60 local television story can be broadcast around the world via social media? If not, follow these few tips to a successful broadcast media interview.
Types of Interviews and How the Media Works
For this article, the emphasis is on television or video interviews of which there are several kinds. However, it is important to know that interviews with a reporter from a newspaper, magazine, blog or radio station are different and follow their own unique set of rules.
Television interviews include the following types:
- Impromptu or surprise
- Pre-scheduled, one-on-one
- In-studio news program (think CNN or FOX talking heads)
- Talk show
- Press Conference
Most people who are the subjects of television interviews will interact with reporters in the first two scenarios -- impromptu or pre-scheduled. The impromptu or surprise interview can take the form or a "gotcha" if you or your company are involved in some type of controversy, but this is the exception, not the rule. Instead, a reporter might be covering a tradeshow in Las Vegas where your organization is represented. The reporter walks up and asks to interview you on the spot about your participation in the tradeshow and why it is important to your company. Another example is that you serve on a public board and the local news is covering a decision the board is making. At the end of the meeting or vote, the reporter calls you over and begins to ask you questions on camera about what happened and what the significance of the decision is to their audience. In these cases, you may be able to anticipate you will be interviewed, but the point is it is unplanned from your perspective, and you are in the position of needing to respond.
The pre-scheduled one-on-one interview happens when you are deemed by a news station to be a "subject matter expert" (using the term loosely, here.) The reporter needs comments from someone with your perspective to air a balanced story. The reporter calls you at the office, usually the same day, and asks to come by at a specific time to interview you about the issue. In some cases, a one-on-one can occur in the opposite way. If your organizations employs a media professional that person might "pitch" a story idea to a news director or assignment editor who may send a reporter to interview you. If working with a media professional who schedules an interview on your behalf, that person should be responsible for preparing you ahead of time.
It helps to understand a little about how television media works. Generally, the reporters, assignment editor and news director will meet every morning between 9 AM and 10 AM. At that point, assignment editors have an idea of stories that need to be covered that day. For example, maybe the Governor is coming to town or there is an economic development announcement, so one reporter will be assigned to cover that story. On some days, every reporter gets at least one pre-planned story, but on a slow news day some reporters may be asked to "find" news and bring back a suitable story for the 5 PM broadcast. With news programming dominating, so much of a local network's programming, reporters and editors have to prepare stories for noon, 4 PM, 5PM, 6 PM and 10 PM newscasts. The proverbial wrench is thrown into the plan when there is "breaking news." It seems almost everything is breaking news these days, but a car wreck, shooting or major announcement, will result in reporters being diverted from their original stories to cover the breaking news. If you have a scheduled interview, you may be out of luck.
While a typical newscast often includes live coverage, most stories are edited to fit within the timeframe of the newscast. The median length of a television news story is just 41 seconds. To piece together a 30 minute newscast, recorded interviews and supporting video, known as B-roll, have to be submitted in sufficient time to be watched, edited and scripted for when it is scheduled to air. Editing can sometimes be handled in the field, but most of the time a reporter will have a hard deadline.
The in-studio interview and talk show are different and less common formats for the average person. An in-studio interview can be requested on the same day depending on the timeliness of the story. Many times these interviews involve a controversial or debatable topic and the station is looking for a back and forth dialogue between the reporter and you or between you and someone of the opposite viewpoint moderated by the reporter. In this setting, it will appear to viewers you are in another location being interviewed "via satellite." The reality, unless being interviewed by a major cable network, is that the reporter, the opposition and you are all in the same studio, but it is broadcast in a way to appear as if you are somewhere else. The reporter's job in this setting is to create an engaging discussion that keeps viewers tuned-in, so expect pointed questions and an adversarial vibe.
Many local stations have late morning, weekend or early evening talk shows. Typically, these shows repeat yesterday's news, the weather and traffic ad nauseam. In between, they feature short segments about issues or events happening in the local community. Generally, these interviews are live instead of recorded and last longer than a standard TV news story. Often one is invited to share details of a charitable event, a new company initiative broadly beneficial to the community or because you are an expert on a topic of community interest, such as identity theft or financial literacy. These interviews are most always friendly, but the interviewer is not always well-versed in the subject, which can lead to inappropriate questions.
A press conference, or "presser" as they are sometimes called, is organized by you or your representatives to make an important announcement. You invite the media through a media advisory to attend at a certain place and time. If calling a press conference, you must feel very confident that your subject matter is newsworthy and will draw media coverage. Because it can be hard to know if the media will come or if they will be called away for more important news, you need to be sure that a press conference is the best way to share your information. At a press conference there are prepared statements by a few individuals and then, depending on the topic, media will be allowed to ask questions. However, it is your event, so you set the ground rules. Will there be questions? What questions can I or will I answer? When will it end? For most, a press conference is the least likely way of being interviewed by the media.
Know the Subject Matter
This may seem obvious, but many people attempt interviews with reporters on topics about which they know very little. Sometimes it is assumed that the interview is "friendly" and won't delve into details. In other situations, interviewees are the designated spokesperson for the organization or are too arrogant to relinquish the role. If you are not the subject matter expert, here are your choices:
- Politely decline the interview. There is no rule that says you have to accept a reporter's request;
- Tell the reporter they should interview the person with the most knowledge of the issue, and prep that person for the interview;
- Accept the interview yourself, but not on the spot. Schedule it and give yourself time to be prepped and to know the details. Be honest with the reporter that you want a little time to be sure you get the details correct.
Talk in 'Sound Bites'
You have likely heard the term "sound bite." A sound bite is a very short sentence that capsulizes the message you want to deliver. Remember the median length of a television news story is 41 seconds. Your quotes will only be a portion of that 41 seconds. Remember also that the story will be edited. You don't choose what gets cut out. The station producers do. They may choose the least important or least flattering thing you said. If a scheduled interview, write down your main points and go over them numerous times before the reporter arrives. No matter what be sure you communicate those points during the interview and multiple times if possible. If an impromptu interview, hopefully you have had some previous experience. If not, quickly think of one key point you can make in ten words or less and repeat that point as often as you can.
Let's imagine you are the CEO of a local company that has decided you are going to lay off 100 workers. You expect you will be or you have already been contacted by a reporter. Here is an example of three sound bites you might want to make:
- ABC Company regrets we cannot maintain our current level of employees;
- Employees are being assisted in securing new employment;
- ABC Company is committed to remaining a major employer in this community.
If these are the right messages for the situation, then repeat them. They are brief enough to make the story. Even if only one of the sound bites is included, it is an important message you want viewers to know. If the reporter asks a different question or wants to follow up on a question in more detail, you can say more, but "pivot" back to your main points and repeat them.
So, what about a longer format interview like the talk show? Same advice. In longer format interviews, you definitely have the opportunity to tell more of the story, but you also have more time to get into trouble and say something you wish you had not said. Longer, more conversational interviews sometimes cause us to let our guards down and that's when the rambling starts. If you manage not to get into trouble, you may muddle your main messages in a way that the viewers miss what is most important.
Always Look at the Interviewer, Never at the Camera
It is always easy to tell if someone is new to a TV interview. They want to look at the camera. Don't! Look at the person asking the questions. If the camera were not there, a polite person would not look away while having a conversation. It is the camera person's job to get the shot s/he wants. The camera may move, but keep your eyes on the interviewer.
Like most rules, this one has an exception. The in-studio, "talking head" interview requires you to look in the camera. Remember, in most local situations the reporter and the interviewees are in the same room, but attempting to create the appearance on TV of being in separate locations. If you look to where the reporter or anchor is sitting, the camera will broadcast your profile and you will ruin the television "magic." In this case, look straight at the camera as if you were talking to a friend or colleague across a restaurant table.
Keep Your Cool
One of the worst mistakes a person can make in an interview, live or recorded, is to lose your temper. Most will never face a situation where a reporter is badgering or asking questions that are offensive or inappropriate. However, if it happens, do not lose it. That is what they want to happen and the part of the interview guaranteed to make the story. Your message will get lost and you will look as if you did something wrong. There is an appropriate way to object, though every scenario cannot be imagined. No matter how friendly you expect the interview to be, if you have advanced notice prepare for the worst question you could be asked. Here are a few examples of how to calmly respond:
- "I appreciate your need to ask that question, but it's a private matter and I'm here to talk about ...(repeat your sound bites;)
- "That's a really good question that I will answer at a later date, but at this time it is the subject of a lawsuit and I am unable to discuss it...(repeat your sound bites;)
- "Thanks for asking that question, but I agreed to talk with you about (repeat sound bites) and I would like to stick to our agreement.
Use the Proper Emotion and Gestures
We all have our nervous habits and those are likely to appear in an interview. One of the most common is head-nodding. We often do it in conversations to let the person know we are understanding what they are saying. Imagine a reporter saying, "Shouldn't you and the other top executives at ABC Company take cuts to your salaries and benefits to avoid laying off these employees? Wouldn't that be the fair thing to do?" If you are nodding throughout the question, you are sending a signal to all watching that you agree with the premise of the question.
We have all been told throughout our lives to smile, but if the topic is about the high homicide rate in the community, smiling would obviously not be the right gesture, nor would frowning or standing stiffly if you are announcing a $100,000 gift to the Boys and Girls Club. If you're a hand-talker or a leg-bouncer be aware of those movements and don't let them distract from your message.
Types of Television Interviews
Live or Recorded
Most often recorded, occassionally live
Very specific about something that just happened. Must be quick on feet.
Set by phone call from/to reporter. Location varies. Allows time for preparation.
Live or recorded. Know the format before you agree
Combative. Staring into camera.
Usually live in the local market. National recorded.
Usually friendly. Hosts minimally prepped. Lends to longer answers.
Recorded unless the news is highly significant (i.e. details of high-profile crime)
Scripted, planned and formatted by you. MUST be big news to get media there.
Get a Question You Don't Like, Then Answer One You Do
Inevitably, if you do enough TV interviews, you will get asked a question that you cannot answer or do not want to answer. Sometimes the reporter gets lucky with the question, other times she is attempting to create the conflict. It takes some practice, but pivoting from her question to your messages is the right approach. Politicians are among the best at avoiding questions they don't want to answer. Throughout the Republican primary, the various candidates were asked repeatedly if they would endorse or support Donald Trump if he were the nominee. Eventually, most finally had to answer the question directly. However for months, they pivoted by saying:
- "I expect to win and be the nominee;"
- "I am focused on meeting voters and telling them about my vision for America that includes...;"
- "Donald Trump is not a true conservative and lacks the experience to be the Commander-in-Chief."
Even if the reporter keeps pushing and attempting to goad you into an answer, do not take the bait. Continue to pivot.
Dress for Success
Admittedly the rules have changed as fashion has changed about what is appropriate for television. However, I subscribe to a traditional philosophy. Solid color suits or dresses or clothes with small patterns look best. Accessorize with a solid or small patterned item in a contrasting color. You want to be heard, not noticed.
Also dress for the venue. An interview at the office or in the studio generally calls for professional dress, but an interview at a company picnic or playground would lend itself to a more casual style. Be as comfortable as you can based on what is appropriate for the venue so you are not distracted by what you are wearing.
Follow Up with Written Statement, When Possible
You made it through the interview and the reporter is gone. You replay it in your mind and really aren't sure the reporter understood what you were trying to say. What do you do? Follow-up with a carefully worded email. Remember it is "on the record" and keep it professional, but it is appropriate to clarify your comments. This does not mean that he will return and re-interview you, but your clarification could positively impact how the story is edited, what the reporter includes in the script or what is included in the on-screen graphics.
For a press conference or announcement on a talk show, your organization should have a formal press release that explains what is happening in your words and provided during the press conference or afterwards. For the talk show format, clips from the guests sometimes are aired in other newscasts as part of a story. The written follow-up can help station staff use the correct details or put the story in the proper context.
TV interviews can be nerve-wracking, even for the experienced, but a little adrenaline can help you maintain your focus and not get too casual with a reporter. These recommendations can be considered basics. If you plan to be engaging the media regularly because of a new position or strategy in your company, hire a media professional and invest in some intense media training for yourself and others in the organization that may need to be interviewed. Contrary to what you have heard all press is NOT good press. How you are perceived in a TV interview affects the image of you and your organization.