Stay Cool Under Fire:
Tips to Handle News Media lnterviews
The Canadian Mover
WHETHER or not “the customer is always right” is a topic of debate. Here’s the scenario. Your team has just come through a tough move for a difficult customer. Despite all best efforts to resolve some post-move issues, your unhappy customer “threatens to go to the media.” The very real possibility that the imagined or real bad news about this moving experience could be on Facebook or Twitter will doubtless give you sleepless nights. So, what are you to do? For the purposes of this article, we’ll deal only with “traditional” news media, i.e., print (newspapers, magazines), online, radio and TV. An article on social media wil appear in a future issue of The Canadian Mover. There is no question that reporters can certainly create an uncomfortable experience for you, can interrupt your already-hectic schedule and can cover events you may prefer were left in the background. By and large, that’s simply too bad! If you’re running a going concern, (presumably) you owe it to your customers, your industry, your staff, and all of your stakeholders to enhance your company’s (and your personal) visibility in the marketplace, particularly when you are trying to solve a customer’s problem, which has become your problem. You can’t do that selectively, by avoiding the news media, except when it suits you to go after favourable news coverage. So the reporter from the local TV station calls you. What are you going to do? How will you respond? There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Clearly, it’s much better to accept the necessity, and even the desirability, of becoming an accessible spokesperson to have your side of the story told truthfully, especially when the going gets tough. You need to remember that you and your company are merely the subjects of the interview. If you know what you are doing, and prepare yourself, you needn’t become the interviewer’s victim. Here are 10 recommendations to help you survive those tough interviews,
whether they’re live at a news conference, in front of your establishment, on the street in a serum, or by phone:
Prepare for all major interviews. Best place to start – with the facts and the truth! Don’t assume your closeness to the situation means you’ve got all the answers. For example, while it might matter very little to you to know how long your organization has been in its present location, it will seem obvious to an outsider (the reporter gathering facts) that you should know.
Vocalize your responses in advance. Knowing a subject thoroughly and
crafting a written response in the clearest, simplest terms are helpful. But you won’t really know how clearly you can explain something vocally until you do just that. Start with a sympathetic listener on your home turf. Yes, even Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been known to rehearse his ministers to clearly enunciate targeted messages. Supply background material. It helps an interviewer to have explanatory information on details he or she may not have known enough about to ask. It also saves time you’d waste covering background you can simply refer to in the written material. Your function should be to comment on issues and situations, not to conduct a seminar on what those issues are for the interviewer. Maintain some control from the beginning. In a face-to-face interview, begin, if there’s time, by asking the interviewer about his or her background. It makes the subsequent conversation sound less like the interrogation of a hostile witness. You can’t do this effectively in a phone interview.
If the interviewer is a novice, it helps to reinforce your credentials as the expert in this matter. If the interviewer is highly knowledgeable, you’ve been forewarned. Don’t be misled by the apparent simplicity of questions. If you’re worth being interviewed, there’s news value in quoting you directly. The interviewer may well understand a concept as well as you do, but may want it explained in your own words. Don’t answer hypothetical questions. You can turn them around by explaining what your organization’s policy has been in the past, but there’s nothing to be
gained by locking yourself into a position based on a hypothetical situation. If the question is intended to develop an illustration of some point, offer a real-life illustration instead, if you can. Beware: hypothetical questions are an excellent means of leading an interviewee into a trap.
Don’t presume to redirect the story line. You may well prefer news coverage of something unrelated to what the editor or reporter wants to write about. The interviewer may listen politely, but if what you say is considered a non-story, you’ve wasted time -yours and the interviewer’s. The more helpful you are in responding to the questions asked of you, the better the chances are of improving your organization’s position in the final article or on-air program. Conduct interviews without interruption as far as possible. If you’re distracted during an interview, you may end up discussing business matters with a colleague that you’d rather not share with the interviewer. But the interviewer will remain attentive and on the job the whole time you aren’t.
Don’t try to buffalo even a novice. You’ll get away with it only as long as the interview itself lasts. Eventually, your comments will cross the desk of a much worldlier editor or producer, who’ll recognize bafflegab for what it is. Refer the interviewer to other sources. In any type of industry-wide roundup, the interviewer may defer to the pressures of time and rely Qn the leads you provide. Don’t hesitate to recommend sources with viewpoints similar to your own, such as a spokesperson from the CMA. A final consideration: media training. It’s personal development at its best and if you learn how to deal with the news media, you can deal with anyone! After all, media training is communications training.
David Eisenstadt, Fellow PRSA, Fellow CPRS, is Founding
Partner with The Communications Group Inc., a
Toronto-based public relations consulting firm serving
corporate clients across Canada (www.tcgpr.com, 416-
Stay Cool Under Fire: