Many people find being interviewed by the media somewhat intimidating – but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a quick guide to giving a good media interview.
For any media interview, keep these things in mind:
Anticipate questions. What questions are you likely to be asked? If the situation calls for it, practice the answers to difficult questions you think the reporter might ask. But never ask journalists to give you questions in advance — they won’t, and they’ll find the request annoying.
If you’ve gone after this coverage by sending a press release, review the release before the interview starts. It’s helpful to remind yourself exactly what the reporter is working from before your interview.
Be conversational. Don’t deliver a lecture to the reporter — instead, have a conversation. If you can, avoid the use of industry jargon (if you need to use an unfamiliar word, define it). Don’t promote your company too hard — you don’t want to sound like a stereotypical used car salesman.
Only say things you wouldn’t mind seeing in print or on screen. Never assume you’re off the record at any point in the conversation, even before the reporter gets out their notebook. Important corollary: always assume any radio or television microphone is live or recording. (We’ve all heard plenty of bloopers where a producer forgot to turn off a mic and someone said something indiscreet or profane — this is unlikely, but better safe than sorry!)
Don’t use the phrase “no comment.” It sounds argumentative, and as though you have something to hide. It’s better to say “I don’t know,” or “I’m not authorized to discuss that.” Better yet, redirect by saying something like, “While I can’t discuss that in detail, what I can tell you is….” If appropriate, offer to research the question and get back to the reporter.
Repeat your main points. It is perfectly okay to make your main points more than once. If you can, support your main points with examples, anecdotes, and statistics. Your interviewer is trying to extract interesting quotes that will illustrate the story while punctuating it — try to give them that.
Be pleasant. Thank the reporter after the interview is over — you want him or her to think of you as a friendly, approachable, knowledgeable source.
If you don’t know what the story is about, ask! Occasionally reporters will consult businesspeople for expert opinions, or for a reaction to a news story. If you hear from a reporter unexpectedly, ask him or her to clarify exactly what the story is about before you start answering questions. If you aren’t comfortable with the situation or would like to do more research before sharing your point of view, ask to call the reporter back. A good way to do that is to ask what their deadline is — thus, you demonstrate concern for the reporter’s needs while buying yourself some time to consider your response.
Reporters will interview you by phone or in person. The interview may be very brief, or might go on a little longer in the case of a more complex story. The reporter will pull a few sentences from your interview for inclusion in the article, and the rest will be used as background information.
Many reporters will bring a tape recorder or tape you over the phone, which some interviewees find unnerving. Rest assured that a tape recorder is actually a good thing as it allows the reporter to review what you’ve said, and ensures that your quotes will be transcribed accurately. If there’s no tape recorder, don’t talk too fast, and pause between your main points — remember, the reporter is writing down what you say.
If it’s a complex topic, you might want to make a list of the points you want to cover. Many reporters will end the interview by asking if there’s anything you’d like to add – having a list in front of you will help you make sure you didn’t miss anything.
Interviews for television news are taped in advance, and the reporter will go back to the station and edit your interview with “B-roll,” that is, footage of whatever the news is about, to make a story. Bear in mind that TV news stories are only a few minutes long – they generally do not convey the same amount of detail as a newspaper story. For example, newspaper stories often feature quotes from more than one source, but that is rarely true of television news — a typical television news story will only use one interviewee.
Television news will use only a sentence or two of what you say for a story. But sometimes, they’ll edit several versions of the same story for use in subsequent newscasts, so that viewers who see both newscasts don’t have to watch the same exact thing multiple times. Thus, your goal is to give them several succinct quotes. On a related note, you can make the same point in different ways – being slightly repetitive helps the reporter get multiple quotes that can be easily edited into more than one version of the story.
If you trip over your words, simply say to the reporter, “I’m sorry, can I say that again?” Reporters will happily agree, because their goal is to get usable, concise quotes!
Occasionally news interviews are live, when the reporter is doing a live remote. In that case, the reporter will go over with you what he or she intends to ask before the camera rolls, which gives you a moment to mentally compose your answer. Take your cues from the reporter, remembering to answer as briefly as you can.
If you are booked as a guest on a live news-chat show, your best bet is to watch the show a time or two to learn what to expect. Essentially, you’ll have a conversation with the anchor about your topic, and segments are slightly longer on this type of show than on most newscasts. The anchors of these shows are generally very good at keeping the conversational ball rolling and helping people who aren’t used to being on camera feel comfortable. You’ll wait for your turn to be interviewed in a “green room,” and the producer will bring you to the set when it’s close to your turn — be quiet, as the show is being broadcast live! During a commercial break, the producer will help you with your microphone, and position you on the set with the anchor. The anchor will preview you on the questions he or she intends to ask — let them know if there’s something else you’d like to add.
A few notes about interviewing on television, taped or live:
Look at the reporter. In any form of television interview, you should appear to be conversing with the reporter, not the camera. Don’t look at the camera — in fact, it’s best to pretend the camera isn’t there at all.
Stand still. People often unconsciously shift their weight back and forth when standing (or if seated, wiggle their legs, or move back and forth in a swivel chair etc.) — and being nervous makes this tendency worse. You don’t have to be a statue, but stand your ground and don’t fidget. Otherwise, you move around in the camera frame, which gives an air of untrustworthiness.
Choose clothing carefully, and try to present a well-groomed appearance. Avoid wearing a white shirt (unless you have a blazer or jacket over it), as white appears unnaturally bright and will wash out your face. Small prints, such as houndstooth or narrow stripes, don’t look good on television – solid colors are the safest bet. If you are outdoors, remove your sunglasses for the interview. You can wear a company logo shirt if it looks neat. Special note about news-talk shows — these tend to be business casual, so choose clothing accordingly.
Notes for men. Shave before going on television – stubble does not look good in high-definition.
Notes for women. You might choose to apply just a little more makeup than usual, but don’t overdo it (and don’t expect news/talk shows to provide someone to help with your hair and makeup). Shiny lip gloss or any kind of sparkly/frosted makeup should be avoided. Avoid big dangly earrings or large, bright silver jewelry (brushed metals are better), as these can be distracting. If you’re on a news-chat show, avoid bangle-style bracelets if there’s a table as part of the set — they can bang against it.
In case of a crisis interview
Thus far we’ve been talking about interviews for positive stories. Here’s a quick overview of how to deal with media coverage in more challenging circumstances.
Organizations and businesses occasionally become tangentially involved in negative news stories on which they need to comment. A couple of examples from my own career — I once advised a Muslim university student association in the immediate wake of September 11, 2001, and a small-town accounting firm whose audit uncovered major improprieties perpetrated by a pillar of the community. In both cases, the local media wanted comments about these very different, very sensitive situations.
Other times, your business may be directly involved in the story. In the case of litigation involving your business, you may not be permitted to comment publicly. Otherwise, bear in mind that in the absence of information, people will often assume something worse than the truth — so it’s usually best to be as straightforward as you can, even if the answer is something like, “We don’t yet know the full extent of what happened, but are cooperating fully with authorities to find out.”
If a negative news story arises on which you might need to comment, immediately determine who should speak on behalf of your company, and ensure all employees know that media inquiries should be directed to that individual. Work out exactly what you want to say – you can release a statement with your response to the situation.
If you decide to allow an in-person interview, keep your comments brief and on point. It’s vital to keep your cool. If you begin to feel angry or frustrated, take a deep breath and collect yourself before you speak. If necessary, you can sidestep a question by repeating an earlier point once again: “Like I said earlier, it’s important to remember that….” Do not let silence trick you into saying more than you want to — complete your answer and wait for the next question. Finally, it’s perfectly acceptable to politely end the interview when you’ve conveyed your point of view.