As the next installment in my series on message planning and delivery, I’d like to focus on preparing for media and analyst interviews – a critical component to generating brand awareness for your organization (or clients) and taking your message to the masses, one journalist at a time. Here are the steps I recommend you take in preparation for media interviews, in order to consistently deliver your key messages to the influencers that reach your target audiences.
Prepare Your Spokesperson with Talking Points and Key Messages
This is the most obvious step, but I know firsthand that many busy executives don’t prepare for interviews as much as they should. Many spokespeople believe they know the subject matter so well that they can answer any question that comes up. This does little to maintain consistency in your responses and to keep your spokespeople on the message. Before every interview, give your spokesperson a summary (bullet points work best) of the key points to hit on in the interview. You can pull these from your press release or pitch letter, or from your messaging and positioning plan. If the interview is over the phone, scribble notes on a pad of paper or use instant messaging to remind your spokesperson of key points during the flow of the interview, to help keep them on track. Most journalists don’t like it when the PR person is hovering over the interview. It’s best to lurk in the background on phone interviews. If the interview is in-person, you’ll have to take a more active role in guiding the interview back on track if it starts to get off the message. For this reason, I prefer phone interviews (or having the opportunity to answer journalist questions via email in advance or as an alternative to interviews for the best chance at staying on message).
Brief Your Spokesperson on the Journalist and Story in Advance
More important than the key messages you want to communicate in the interview, your spokesperson needs to understand what the journalist’s needs are first and foremost. It’s up to you to brief the spokesperson on what the journalist is all about. What types of stories do they right about the topic your spokesperson will be discussing today, what recent stories have they written on the topic (have your spokesperson read these in advance), what is the background of the journalist (are they technical, junior/senior, freelancer, etc.), and what is the editorial focus of the publication and what audiences do they serve. Most media relations databases have pitch tips and other information to help you understand the journalist in advance. Read these, but also assume that the information could be wrong. Do your own homework and READ what they’ve written to best prepare your spokesperson.
Finally, what was it that convinced the journalist to talk to you in the first place? This is the key message the journalist will be looking for, so make sure your spokesperson meets their needs head-on before going off on your message points for the interview. It’s better to serve the needs of the journalist first and foremost to secure your inclusion in the story. Prepare your talking points specific to the story in advance. For bonus points, bring something to the table that doesn’t benefit you at all, but rather helps to make the journalist’s story better. Do you have access to a research report that is relevant to the story? Do you know another great source on the topic the journalist should talk to (even if it’s a competitor)? Journalists will appreciate the effort to help them write a better story – and more often than not, your spokesperson will be featured more prominently in the story when you do this.
Anticipate the Tough Questions – And Have a Great Answer
Make a list of the most-likely questions a journalist might ask in the interview. Start with the specific story they’re working on, then think about the questions they might ask after reviewing the information on your website or searching the web for background on your company. If you had a spell of bad press in the recent past, you should assume a good journalist is going to ask about it and how things are going now. Any organization should have a running list of the most frequently-asked questions (FAQs) journalists ask, with prepared responses for all of them. As you encounter new questions in interviews, add them to the list. Organize your questions by categories, such as company information (e.g. revenue, key business deals, number of employees, etc.), products (e.g. market share, competitors, new releases, technical questions, etc.), and story-specific questions.
Once you’ve created your master list of questions, work with your team to develop great responses to all of them. What makes a great response? An answer you’d be happy to see in print. Keep this list of questions on your intranet or some other central resource where your team can refer to it often, add to it and be familiar with how they should handle these questions. You don’t want everyone saying, “I can’t answer that question,” “Let me get back to you with an answer,” or the worst of them all, “No comment.” Give journalists the answers they are looking for and you will get more love in the story.
Prepare Your Spokespeople with Bridging and Redirection Skills
Your spokespeople should be trained (see my next point) to use bridging and redirection skills in their interviews to stay on track and avoid answering questions they aren’t prepared for. Watch any press conference with the POTUS to see a master at these skills. If you’re not familiar with bridging and redirection, bridging is answering and question and using it to bring the interview back to the main point or key message the spokesperson is trying to deliver.
For example, if asked something like, “You shut down a plant in a small town in the midwest. What are you doing to get those people new jobs?”, your bridging response might be something like, “Our HR department has career training and transition placement for all of those workers – many have found new jobs already. What I’m most excited about is the 1,000 new jobs we’re bringing to our new plant in that other city this year.”
With redirection, your spokesperson answers a question, but not necessarily the question asked by the reporter. Using the same question above, a redirection response might be something like, “That’s a great question Mark. The truth is, we had to make some tough decisions last year – which is how we were able to exceed our numbers this quarter. With the launch of our new products this quarter, we expect to turn in another strong performance this quarter.” I hate it when people, particularly politicians, don’t answer the question – but it’s a necessary evil when facing tough questions in an interview. The best approach is to have an answer. When you don’t have an answer, these approaches can help you avoid an interview spiraling out of control.
Train Your Spokespeople
Don’t go to the driving range to practice hitting golf balls if you’ve never had a golf lesson. You’ll be practicing the wrong way to swing a club and hit the ball. The same goes for media interviews. Don’t practice your responses without getting some media training. Everyone on your team that will actively be talking with journalists as part of your PR program should be media trained. A good media trainer can develop your spokespeople in the following areas:
- How to familiarize yourself with the journalist’s coverage area and the media outlet
- What to expect from different types of journalists and interview scenarios
- How to rehearse responses and be prepared for unforeseen questions
- How to manage combative or hostile interviews
- How to stay on-message and give consistent responses to FAQs
- How to use bridging and redirection effectively to stay on track
- How to maintain control in the interview and deliver all your messages in the time allotted
- How to handle live television, radio or web-streamed interviews – including on-camera techniques, what to wear on the interview day and other “small things” that impact the success of your interview
- How to consistently deliver key messages via “sound bites”
- How to handle on-the-fly interviews, when a journalist calls them out of the blue and starts asking questions
- How to use body language and tone of voice to communicate key points
- Planning for the worst, what to do when it all goes wrong
I could write a dozen blog posts on interview preparation and media training, but I believe the basics above will help you prepare any spokesperson for their next media interview. To my point on practice and repetition above, the more your spokespeople do it, the better they will get at it. Just make sure they start with a solid foundation of best practices for handling interviews. The more prepared your spokespeople are for an interview, the better they will perform.