It’s a timeless PR story. Interviewee goes into the interview unprepared and the reporter takes the comments out of context. Now the wrong message is in the public’s eye.
Many people who are interviewed by news media claim the reporter has misunderstood and distorted the meaning of their words. They’ll squawk that the reporter didn’t try to understand the subject or came into the story with preconceived notions that were slanted against them.
In most cases, these messes are preventable. For the person who tells me their quotation was taken out of context, I’ll ask them if they spent any time preparing their thoughts in useful interview-sized soundbites. To the experts who rail the reporters didn’t do any background research, I’ll ask them if they spent any time educating the reporter about the important basics, so they could report on the subject accurately. And to the ones who complain the reporters had the story written before the interview started, I’ll ask them if they spent any effort getting in front of the coverage, or did they hesitate to make a statement until the last possible moment?
Media interviews can be terrific opportunities for you and your organization. News outlets give you the chance to reach a large audience in a highly credible and authoritative format. People tend to trust what they see, hear or read in the news. If you want to make the most of these opportunities, you need to treat them seriously. That starts with understanding who reporters are and the world in which they operate.
As newsrooms continue to shrink, reporters have become scarcer and scarcer. Except for the largest outlets, gone are the days when news reporters followed beats. Chances are slim that the reporter will have the necessary background to understand any complex subject. If you’re talking about carbon fibre, mining, genetics, the bond market or the advanced supply chains, please be aware that the reporter is likely looking to you as an expert to help them develop their story and inform their audience.
1. Always triage every interview
We recommend our clients triage interview opportunities before accepting them. When a reporter calls, spend some time asking the reporter or news producer some questions:
- Do you know the reporter or her outlet? If not, Google them to find out who they are and what they’ve done before.
- Have they covered this topic before? What did their stories look like?
- What led to their interest in this story? Why are they calling you?
- Have the spoken to anyone else?
- What angle are they pursuing?
You can discover a great deal about the nature of the story by effectively triaging the initial call. If the reporter hasn’t spoken to anyone yet and is new to the subject, then you have a tremendous opportunity to educate them and influence the resulting coverage. If, on the other hand, they have already spoken to someone who holds an opposing point of view to you, then you’ll be better prepared to counter the arguments you expect have already been posed.
2. Listen to identify knowledge gaps
It’s equally important to listen to reporters carefully during interviews. In my experience, most reporters work hard to present accurate and thoughtful journalism. While they have a responsibility to do background research to understand the subject better, it’s unreasonable to expect reporters to become experts when they must meet a daily deadline. If they’re talking to you for your expertise, then you should be prepared to shoulder some of the responsibility to educate them. That means giving them useful summaries or background information.
It also means listening to their questions. If a reporter’s question shows they are misunderstanding a key concept, then it’s vital for you to stop and retrace your steps to explain that concept better. Not doing so will almost certainly result in a story that is partly or wholly incorrect, which won’t help you at all.
3. Practice, practice, practice
Being a media spokesperson is a complex skill. Like any complex skill, it requires extensive practice to master it. You need to stay in control of what you say and guide the interview in the direction you want it to go. You need to educate the reporter and speak in plain language, so your messages are clearly understood. It also means condensing sometimes complex topics into short, colourful, quotable soundbites.
Interviewees who ramble on and on in endless, breathless sentences are asking reporters to paraphrase key messages. That’s how you end up being “taken out of context”, because you’re asking the reporter to summarize your field of expertise. That’s your job! It’s much better to give them a soundbite of your own design to explain your key message.
The best spokespeople will be able to deliver their key messages in multiple ways. Can you explain your point with a statistic? Can you tell an anecdote that illustrates what you’re trying to get across? How else can you make your point? Decide ahead of time what your primary communications objective is for an interview and make sure you come prepared and practiced to achieve that objective.
The best ones also spend time rehearsing what they’re going to say. How much practice do you need? Ideally, you want to rehearse to the point where you don’t sound rehearsed.
We offer media training for executives. Whether you’re preparing for a crisis or just want your organization to earn better publicity and awareness, we can help present your stories more effectively. Contact us today.