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Part II: Be prepared, not controlling, in media interviews

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In Part I of “Be prepared, not controlling, in media interviews,” we covered more than a dozen tips on how to create a PR babysitting-free environment for your client to connect with a journalist.

Although there will be volatile and vulnerable instances where you will absolutely want to be on hand to monitor an interaction between a reporter and your client, those occasions are rare. So it’s the duty of the public relations professional to help clients be ready for these interviews.

What follows are more pointers on how to make the most of these opportunities, whose frequency is slowing as the media are more prone to churn out stories without actually conducting interviews, relying instead on news releases and background material they have developed in the past.

*Don’t feel obligated to answer every question fully or even at all. When it’s something you don’t feel comfortable or qualified to answer, acknowledge the question and then say that you aren’t in a position to provide the answer because:

*You need to check your facts before giving an answer, or
*You are concerned it may invade someone’s privacy, or
*Another succinct, honest answer.

Note: if you don’t acknowledge the question, you will aggravate the reporter—and that’s not someone you want to aggravate, since he or she may well let that frustration seep into the story by choosing phrases like “refused to answer” instead of “declined to answer.”

In my career as a journalist, pontifications uttered by Jesse Jackson at a Rainbow/PUSH event in Fall 1999 (in support of the Decatur Seven) were the most memorable (and repeated) examples of someone who failed to acknowledge my questions.

Three times, hollering up to him from a space right in front of the stage, I posed a variation on one central question that he outright ignored. Instead, he launched into canned comments that reiterated points he had already made.

Jackson came across as arrogant and evasive, an impression he could have avoided simply by acknowledging the question and then steering his answer: “I am not in position to address that specific question,” and then embark on his “talking points.”

*That last point leads to this one: when appropriate, be sure to make the transition to what you do want to say. So figure out the top one, the top three and the top five points you want to make when speaking to any given media outlet. Depending on the outlet, that’s likely as much as they have space or time for.

*Accept that you have no control over the timing, placement and content of the story. To enhance the story’s chances of accuracy, offer to be available—any time—to answer any clarifying questions they may have.

*Never express disappointment with the length of an interview. Some reporters only need a “quickie quote” to fill in the blank of their story. Cheerfully offer to be available for any follow-up questions they may have.

*It’s okay to ask reporters what they know so far, so that you know how much detail to provide and how to be most efficient.

*If you learn or sense the reporter has not visited your web site, closely read a news release or otherwise is deficient in his or her background knowledge, encourage them to do so.

*Don’t be afraid to repeat the quotes and principles that are in the news release. Many reporters want to hear it from your lips, not only see it in a release. And often they only glance at the news release.

*When necessary, buy a few moments to collect your thoughts (“that’s a great question” is one way to do so).

*Depending on your usual speaking pace, slow down by 15 to 30 percent. Even the most articulate speakers can have their gift for language backfire on them, since reporters struggling to keep up with them may fall behind and therefore either miss or misunderstand points you make.

The easier you make it to follow you, the higher your chance of:

*Developing great rapport
*Ensuring that your key points make it into the story
*Ensuring that the story will be accurate
*The reporter calling you back for more information, a great way to influence the final outcome of a piece since it’s now closer to deadline

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