Top tips to prepare for media interviews
Daney Parker, Editor, PRmoment.com
Camera! Lights! Action! This can be the time to shine, or to fail spectacularly. To make sure your media spokespeople are media darlings rather than media flops, experts offer 14 top tips for shining in interviews. And if the media opportunity is a press briefing, we offer more top tips for that too.
Top tips for shining in media interviews
From David Woodward, director of strategy at PR firm Weber Shandwick:
- Consider professional training. “There are some leaders who make it seem natural, but talking on camera under a barrage of questions – particularly when the stakes are high – is essentially artificial and requires a tightly engineered performance. It demands a fairly unique set of skills and there are not many day-to-day opportunities to practice and improve. This is why the only reliable way to find out whether leaders have what it takes is to apply some pressure in the training room. The trick is to illuminate the characteristics that are likely to cause failure and then work collaboratively with the trainee to find solutions.
“A first experience with a media trainer tends to sort trainees into three main categories: analytical spokespeople take questions at face value, are thoughtful and rely on a strong body of content to see them through. On the flipside they can struggle to seize control of the agenda – important for coping with insistent journalists. Assertive spokespeople like to take control, but they are prone to shooting from the hip without thinking through the broader impact of a response. Tentative spokespeople are a safe pair of hands, but often lack the story colour to guarantee great coverage.”
From Julie Edgar, independent PR consultant:
- Start with your audience. “Who you are speaking to defines the tone and the content. So many interviewees believe it is about them and how much they can show off what they know. Therefore, they miss the point that, no matter how sensitive the issue, a media briefing is an opportunity to talk to people who have a view of their business and could well have an influence on its future – as a consumer, a regulator, an employee or a politician. With a clear view of the audience, establish the purpose of the briefing, for example, to reassure, to provoke interest, to apologise – then pull together three of four key points that will resonate, are easily expressed and sound authentic. Use examples or tell micro stories to make the points memorably.
- Don’t assume senior is best. “Typically, the most senior executive is put up for media briefings and this is often a mistake. If the spokesperson won’t appeal to the audience then chose someone who can. A local manager is more suitable for local media than someone from HQ. A worker from a call centre or factory floor can appeal credibly to the audience with their genuine experience.”
From James Taylor, consultant at PR agency Roaring Mouse:
- Listen and pause. “During the interview, listen hard for verbal cues and take a second or two consider your answers before responding. Don’t fill silences as it’s then you’ll go off message. Set boundaries, be helpful but remember that you don’t have to speculate or talk about things you don’t want to.”
- Rehearse. “Ahead of an interview practice likely questions with a PR advisor, colleague or a tolerant family member. Be flexible and lead the coversation if needs be. Remember, the best interviews feel like a genuine conversation and you can’t be quoted as saying something you didn’t.”
From Adam Cox, founder of agencies Radio Relations and TV Relations
- Follow OfCom Guidelines. “Because broadcast is regulated by OfCom there are strict rules on commercial brand mentions. The key is to have a genuine editorial justification for your message. Focus on a problem that is considered newsworthy and make your message a solution to the problem.”
- Note the difference between live and pre-records. “Live radio interviews are very different to pre-recorded interviews for news so require different preparation. For live radio treat it like a conversation whereas for pre-records you need to prepare short sound bites that last about 20 seconds.”
- Use mind-mapping. “Many people will try and script answers to questions, but this can make you sound less authentic. Prepare by mind-mapping all the key information you want to discuss or could be asked. Have them nearby but don’t read them! Microphones pick up rustling paper and you’ll lose rapport with your audience.”
- Switch off your phone: “This shouldn’t need to be said but Lord Bell somehow forgot this on his interview on Newsnight last year.”
Here Cox gives give top tips for making the most of radio interviews
From Keren Haynes, joint managing director at agency Shout! Communications:
- Identify the top three key points. “You don’t get much air-time on radio or TV, so there’s no point trying to cram too much into a single interview. If you manage to communicate one message in a broadcast interview that’s a success; any more than that is fantastic.”
- Consider the other side of the argument. “Broadcasters love to pit one interviewee agains, so if there’s any possibility of controversy within your subject area you should really have a think about who else could be brought into the story to argue black against your white. Even if you’re not expecting controversy this is a good way of learning to articulate your main points in a concise way.”
- Ask what sort of interview to expect. “Given the choice go for live over a pre-record. It might sound scarier but you’ll get more air-time and have much more editorial control. For example, if you don’t hear your key message or your brand mention in the opening cue, you can quickly work it into your first answer. With a pre-recorded interview there’s nothing you can do if those crucial bits are edited out.“
- What’s the top line or angle? “You might have got the slot on the basis of a press release, but that doesn’t mean to say a journalist will stick to the script. Your cyber expert might have got the research off-pat, but it won’t stop a broadcaster grilling them about the issue of the day instead.“
- Look the part. “For TV that means if you’re a CEO of a listed company you should be suited and booted, but if you work for a charity or perhaps in a creative industry that might seem inappropriate. Research suggests around 75% of the impression a person makes on television is not what they say, but how they look. That’s why it’s so important to get it right.
“Despite modern-day technology there are still some television dos and don’ts. Whilst broadcasters are so fond of green screens (where a virtual background is projected behind the interviewees) avoid green! All black makes a studio interviewee look very two-dimensional. And any thin stripes or thin strips can strobe. The point is, you want people to concentrate on what you’re saying, so should try to avoid anything that might distract from that.”
Press briefing tips
Paul Stallard, international MD at agency Berkeley Global, explains why press briefings are by far the most satisfying part of the job in his eyes. “It's the chance to bounce ideas between a client and a publication, change an opinion or explain the finer points of a story you're working on. But it also has the potential to be a disaster, if your client isn’t prepared.
“The PRO needs to ensure any client attending a briefing is well prepared, and there's no better way of doing this than getting a briefing document to them a few days ahead of an interview (or as soon as possible). This should always be followed up with a call to discuss the finer points, as there's always the risk the client is too busy to read it or hasn’t even seen it in their inbox.
“I also like to meet up well in advance of a face-to -face meeting, or turn up 10 minutes early on a call before the journalist dials in, to make sure the client is clear about what we're discussing, is fully informed, and calm ahead of the interview. Preparation is key.
“As well as stating the obvious (like who they're meeting, where and what time), your media briefing should also include tips to help your client get the most out of this golden opportunity. I always include:
- Do your homework – what has the journalist written about you before?
- Tell the truth.
- Prepare your angle in advance.
- Don’t panic.
- Don’t feel pressure to fill silences.
- Don’t sell.
- Don’t use jargon.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Don’t say ‘no comment’ or ‘off the record’.
- Don’t ask to see the copy before it's published.
- Don’t talk about unreleased news.
“My final tip is related to conference calls – never presume the journalist has left the call. Instead, leave the call and phone your client directly if you'd like a debrief. I once heard of someone discussing how a journalist had been tough on the call, only for the journalist to announce they were still on the line… awkward.”
Now that you can be confident that all future media interview will be a breeze, we will end with just one last piece of advice, suggested by Shout!’s Haynes, and that is to remember to breathe! “You won’t be alone if you feel nervous about the prospect of a radio or television interview; most spokespeople do. Finding a quiet corner for a few deep breaths always helps. When people feel nervous they tend to breathe quickly and from the top of their diaphragm – your voice sounds more solid if you project what you say, and that makes you look and sound more confident too.
“Ultimately broadcast interviews are hard won but often the icing on the cake because they reach so many people and are so influential. A happy, smiling spokesperson is much more engaging and likely to make an audience warm to them, so probably my best bit of advice would be, having got the moment, enjoy it.“
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