When I was reporting for a newspaper or magazine, one of the biggest turn-offs was the overzealous, overprotective publicist who sought too much control over the news-gathering process.
They would hover over phone interviews, display a lack of media savvy by asking if they could see my story before it was published, and generally become a Grade A nuisance. In my pursuit of fairness, accuracy and thoroughness (F.A.T., for short), I tried not to let it negatively affect my tone or content in writing about their client.
However, not every journalist is as forgiving, so one of the pledges I have made since becoming a publicist is to never be "that guy" who is overzealous, overprotective and over-controlling.
Essential to the success of that approach has been training clients who have little or no previous experience in speaking with the media, so that they don't need a PR baby-sitter. In those instances, they undergo training through a “mock interview” process that includes extensive feedback on their strengths and weaknesses.
The following is excerpted from one such piece of feedback. The counsel, applicable to many relative newcomers to media interviews as well as those with extensive media-relations experience, does not cover every imaginable angle. But it covers some key basics, with more elements to be spelled out in the forthcoming "Part II: Be prepared, not controlling, in media interviews."
Here, then, are some training tips for when you are about to undergo a media interview:
*A significant temptation, and potential pitfall, is the desire to share your entire story with the reporter.
*One of your greatest strengths will be your discipline in sharing only the major element or elements that the reporter seeks.
*Restraint in the interviewing process does not come naturally, but you will receive kinder treatment from reporters, by and large, when you focus on their needs.
*Clarify if the reporter has already read a news release related to the topic you are discussing. If so, your role is to add your personal touch, provide sparkling quotes without it seeming like you are reading from a script.
*If the media experience is new to you, acknowledge that to reporters, who will tend to be kinder and gentler (unless they are playing “gotcha” journalism—trying to expose something you are seeking to suppress).
*When setting up an interview, or embarking on an interview on the spot, ask the reporter if he or she has any particular focus that they are looking to take. Your story has numerous possible angles, and depending on the publication, you may want to suggest a certain aspect of the story.
(The key here is to suggest it, not push it aggressively. The reporter wants to be the one in control.)
*Ask a reporter how much time he or she thinks will be required. Advise if you have that much time at the moment. It often makes sense to simply squeeze in a quick interview, even if you don’t have time to tell the whole story.
*Rarely will you be able to share anything approaching the “whole story.” But the key is to get a reporter invested in the story, so he or she pursues that investment. The return on investment, for the reporter, is publication. That’s also your ROI. In this respect, you and the reporter are perfectly aligned.
*Keep your answers brief—if the reporter wants to hear more, he or she will say so.
Overarching all of this advice, consider a point made by Bill Hawkins, an Amway Executive Diamond and leader with the World Wide DreamBuilders training-and-development organization. “The person who is in control of a conversation,” Hawkins says, “is the one who is asking questions.”
So if an interview feels as if it’s getting away from you—if you sense that the reporter is exploring topics and material that have strayed from your original understanding and could be leaving you vulnerable to preventable damage—then there is nothing wrong with answering a question with a question (and wrap it in a statement).
For example, you might say: “I am sensing your objective in speaking with me differs from what I understood upfront. Is that true?”
Based on the reporter’s response, you can then determine whether to:
*Continue with the interview as it was proceeding,
*Indicate that this new line of inquiry is something you cannot comment on but that you can answer questions related to other topics, or
*Politely, but firmly, indicate that you are no longer in a position to continue the interview and conclude the conversation.