• A strong communications professional helps cultivate relationships between influencers and spokespeople
  • A partnership between the communications professional and spokesperson helps ensure the right message is delivered
  • The more prepared the spokesperson is for the media interview, the more likely the outcome will be successful for all

As communications professionals, we’ve all had that moment during a media interview where a journalist’s tactics and questions surprise both you and your spokesperson. In PR, we can sit around and entertain peers with our “Interview Hall of Shame.” For me, a broadcast interview firm once accidently misdialed and, instead of reaching the intended journalist, they put our spokesperson on the phone with a random businessman who neglected to alert anyone of the error and pretended to be journalist. Unaware of the error, we proceeded until the questions turned crass. Another time, during an in-person media briefing, my spokesperson went off message and decided to announce an upcoming product that we didn’t want mentioned. In the debrief, he later admitted he knew his product was being shelved and that this was his last-ditch effort to save it. Then there’s the innocent and laughable – at the start of my career, I once had to inform my spokesperson that his fly was down. In other words, anything can happen. But a PR person must be ready to protect both the spokesperson and the brand.

Media interviews can be awkward. The interview feels like a conversation – but it isn’t. Everything should be considered on the record from start to finish. Often, journalists use varying techniques to try to encourage off-track discussions, and with good reason. On their end, they are looking for a fresh soundbite, a view of the organization that may intrigue its readers. From the organization’s end, we’re looking to relay our story, appeal to readers and build brand awareness. You can’t always predict difficult moments – e.g. an interview gone sour, a reporter catching a spokesperson off-balance, a spokesperson having a bad day – but you can plan and prep for them.

Before all media interviews, review the following with your spokesperson.

  • Become familiar with the journalist’s background. A well-prepared spokesperson should always receive a briefing that details the journalist’s background, recent published articles of interest, and the relationship he or she has had with the organization.
  • Know your three main messaging points and takeaways. For phone briefings, having your main points written in front of you helps make sure you cover them all. For in-person interviews, the communications rep attending the interview can keep notes and mention any topics not covered at the close of the interview.
  • Remember that everything is on the record. Say what you know and only what you know. Have a one-line response ready for when you don’t. Every media interview should be moderated by the company’s communications team or supporting PR agency. If questions are asked outside of your area of expertise, a great response is: “I want to be sure we give you the right information. Susan, our communications manager on the line here, can you assist?” Depending on the question asked, most journalists will accept the offer of a second interview with a different spokesperson or simply a followup email with additional information.
  • Don’t comment on or respond to items you haven’t seen directly. “In a recent video, your competitor said your product is lacking. Do you have a response?” The knee-jerk reaction is to sound defensive. Don’t do this. Did you see the video in question? Have you discussed the way to respond with your communications pro? If yes, feel free to answer. If no, first say, “I haven’t had a chance to see the video you reference so I can’t respond appropriately. Would you mind sending it and we can respond once we’ve viewed it?” The team can then help prepare a carefully worded soundbite once the video has been reviewed and messaging discussed.
  • Don’t repeat the phrases the reporter used. A reporter may ask a question using words he or she would love in a soundbite. For example: “Is the product launch delayed because of technical issues?” If you said “No, the product launch isn’t delayed due to technical issues. Our plan is…” you may have just given the quote, “The product launch isn’t delayed due to technical issues.” This wasn’t your key message and it may not even be an issue you had at all, but now the quote, on its own, may suggest there are issues. Here, the recommended response would be: “We intend to launch when…” Use your own words and your own message, and deliver only the information you wish to share.
  • Allow silence. Journalists often use pause techniques after a spokesperson has answered a question. Silence is awkward, and it’s during those times that a less experienced spokesperson will ramble on and possibly veer off message in an effort to fill that uncomfortable silence. Use the pause to repeat any key topics or bridge to another message you’d like to discuss. Or, simply, take a sip of water and wait for the journalist to proceed; he or she may be taking notes or preparing for the next topic.

Media interview preparation should always be tailored according to the familiarity your organization and your spokesperson has with each journalist. The communications team is responsible for building a briefing report to prep your spokesperson for what this reporter typically covers, what he or she would like to cover in the interview, along with the company’s key messages intended for this discussion. This material should be reviewed and discussed prior to the start of the interview. Areas of concern during the interview should be addressed with a sense of urgency, out of respect to the journalist and the spokesperson. With careful practice, you can reduce your chances of winning the “hall of shame contest” and secure positive media coverage to help build brand awareness.

If all else fails and you just need to laugh about interviews gone wrong, check out one of my favorite items often shared in executive media training – a clip from The Bob Newhart Show from 1972.

What words of advice do you usually share with your spokesperson?