Examples of disastrous media interviews and top tips for nailing them
Daney Parker, Editor, PRmoment.com
There is nothing more devastating for a reputation than a shocking media appearance, as Prince Andrew’s car-crash interview with Emily Maitlis in 2019 proves. A poor interview can also make the journalist look bad, if the questions are inane or are too aggressive. To ensure all your media interviews are a delight rather than a catastrophe, below are top tips for both interviewees and interviewers, as well as examples of some of the best and worst interviews in recent times.
Top media interview tips
From Hayley Ainscow, senior account director at agency Aduro Communications:
Have a clear strategy
“The secret to the perfect interview lies in three key areas: media strategy, choosing the right talent and a collaborative approach with the journalist. The first questions you need to ask yourself are what is the media strategy? Are we doing a brand awareness job? Are we looking to drive commercial results for the brand? These areas lend themselves to two different media strategies; either a mass media approach or a vertical media approach in relevant titles where the brand’s audience is most engaged and looking for brand recommendations.
Find the best spokesperson
“Next, you need to find the right talent for the brand that has the right media pull. They need to be charismatic and have press experience in order to confidently talk to media and know when to weave in the brand messaging. Working with the right talent will also mean that the interview is effortless, they’re passionate about the brand and it’s a natural topic for them to be talking about.
Work with the journalist
“Finally, working with the journalist on the topic of the piece and making sure the brand mentions don’t feel like an ‘add on’ but are centred around the theme of the campaign. We agree three key areas before any interview takes place: at least one branded image, a question about the campaign and that a branded interview credit will run at the end of the piece. Without these three elements agreed, we will not proceed with an interview no matter the title.”
From Georgia Christley account manager at agency Carnsight Communications:
Prepare, prepare, prepare
“Be engaging and flowing, no awkward pauses or breaks. It is important to prepare both questions and topics to cover, making sure to not seem too scripted. Best interviews I have seen are ones that are natural, free flowing and comfortable.
“Don’t ask uncomfortable or pressing questions (unless that’s the purpose of interview) just be mindful that people have feelings! No sexism, racism, mum/career, prejudice remarks or demoralising comments and allow freedom of speech without judgement.”
Best and worst media interviews
Dame Sarah Gilbert on Woman’s Hour
Karen Kay, director of media training and communications coaching business Shoot the Media: “Dame Sarah Gilbert, the Oxford professor of vaccinology who led the team that created what is commonly known as the ‘Oxford AstraZeneca’ vaccine appeared on BBC Woman’s Hour on 10 September discussing the need - or not - for booster vaccines. As a scientist and academic, she has a refreshing ability to communicate and resonate with a wider, less informed audience, articulating complex issues with plain, conversational English.
“This interview saw Gilbert addressing controversial topics such as the anti-vaccine movement with tact and diplomacy whilst being persuasive about the need to vaccinate. Her approach is measured, authoritative and empathetic, setting out her own expertise by explaining virus transmission issues and data sets, the risks and benefits of a global vaccine programme and the concerns about the speed of vaccine development. She also deflected responsibility for decision making, with an emphatic reply that this falls under the JCVI remit. When praised for her own professional achievements, Gilbert responded with humility and grace, crediting her team and the wider scientific community, while talking of the need to attract more women into other areas of the STEM sector.”
Oprah Winfrey with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry
Sam Levene, digital PR manager at agency The Audit Lab: “An interview that really stuck with me and I thought was very well conducted was Oprah's two-hour interview with Megan Markle and Prince Harry.
“The interview took place at a neighbour’s home, a safe space for them to be as comfortable as possible whilst discussing some difficult topics such as the racism and mental health issues experienced by Meghan, and Oprah really showed the media how it’s done. Oprah remained controlled throughout, listened carefully and also displayed real empathy with Meghan and Harry. You can tell how safe and protected they felt when speaking to her.
“This interview really shines a light on how important it is for the interviewer to really listen and empathise with the person you’re interviewing. It sounds obvious, but I see so many interviews conducted where it’s clear to see that the interviewer is trying to focus on remembering the next question, instead of truly listening to the response and letting the conversation flow naturally, and it comes across as a very a robotic Q&A."
Oprah Winfrey and Whitney Houston
Georgia Christley: “Oprah Winfrey engages with her interviewee and the audience by being warm and open, by being calm and collected, but also direct and to the point.”
Richard Madeley and Gavin Williamson
Helen Furnivall, managing director of agency Highrise Communications: “The worst interview I've ever seen? Anything by former education secretary Gavin Williamson - but especially the one where he got scolded by Richard Madeley, of all people, for trying to avoid the question. Goodness knows how he survived in his job for so long. And presumably, he'd been media trained too. He tried to ignore the question and it totally backfired.
“It's one of the top tips we always give in our media training sessions - listen to the question you are being asked and acknowledge it, even if it's one you would rather not answer. And never ever say 'no comment'.”
Rihanna on Australian show Sunrise
Georgia Christley: “Rihanna shuts down the interview after a love-life question - there is a time and a place to ask awkward questions and that’s not on a TV interview where a celeb is discussing their personal lives honestly and openly, letting us in to get to know them as ‘real’ people.”
For any good interview, whether you are asking the questions or answering them, it is important to put in the groundwork first. A good interview may appear effortless, but the reality is that it involves a lot of hard work on both sides.
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