Fact: The longer your media interview lasts, the less control you'll have over the quotes that appear in the story.
Many spokespeople treat a media interview like a job interview. They sit there passively like a job applicant while the reporter asks question after question after question. The person being interviewed is like a human piñata, getting whacked with questions for 10, 15, even 20 minutes at a time.
The result? A decreased chance of your key messages making it into the story.Think about it. The average person speaks at a rate of approximately 120 words per minute (or perhaps faster when they're nervous). During the course of a 15-minute interview, that's about 1,800 words, or the length of a feature story in a magazine. You have 3-5 important lines you want to convey to the reporter, but you've given them 1,800 words to choose from. It's no wonder so many people say they were taken out of context. Often, what they really mean is that the reporter didn't select the quotes that they thought were most important.
The perfect media interview lasts about five minutes. If you know how to handle yourself in a media interview, five minutes is plenty of time to tell your story and to give the reporter everything they need to complete their piece.
When I tell people the ideal interview is five minutes long, they often ask, "So what happens when the reporter keeps asking questions?" Valid question. So here are four steps to help you get in and out of nearly any media interview in five minutes or less:
1. Develop 3-5 compelling key messages. These are positive, accurate points that tell your side of the story. Your messages should contain motive, they should answer more than one question and they need to be accurate and true. Hint: if you can't fit all of your messages for the interview on an 3" x 5" index card, you need to do some editing.
2. Time your interviews. A media interview can be like a rollercoaster in that it can mess with your sense of the passage of time. You might think the interview you just finished was three minutes long when in reality, it was actually more like nine minutes in length. Trust me. I've seen this happen dozens of times in our training sessions where I time the interview and then ask the interviewee how long they thought it was. The results can be surprising. Timing your interview is easy enough when it's being done over the phone. Use the stopwatch function on your smartphone. Start the timer when the reporter asks their first question. And if it's a TV interview, consider getting someone from your communications team to keep track of the time and give you a subtle cue (*ahem*) around the 4.5 minute mark.
3. Create your exit in advance. Before the reporter even asks the first question, say: "Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to your readers/listeners/viewers. We really appreciate it. I should probably tell you that I've only got about five minutes or so, so I hope I can give you what you need in that time." As long as you can actually deliver responses that help both of you meet your objectives, you should be golden.
4. Use that exit you created in Step 3. Around the 4.5 minute mark of the interview, you should have delivered the majority of your messages. At that point, you can politely remind the reporter, "As I mentioned, I'm a bit pressed for time right now...I think I've got time for two more questions." Answer up to two more questions, finish on a strong note, thank the reporter again for their interest and voila - the interview is over.
This technique does work. It works for trade media, mainstream media, print, radio and TV. This past summer, one of our clients did four network TV interviews in one day on a fairly sensitive and high profile topic. I timed each interview on my BlackBerry (I videotaped them too, but that's another post for another day). The shortest interview was 4.5 minutes long and the longest was just under 6. In each case, the client told the same story in an interesting, yet disciplined manner. And in each case, the reporters said they had everything they needed. The resulting media coverage was interesting. But more importantly from a communications perspective, it was predictable. The messages on the client's index card were the ones that made it onto the evening news.
Before you try this at home, be forewarned. There will be situations where this won't work. For example, if you stonewall the reporter with a string of one-word answers, you're in for a long, painful interview. That's because the reporter won't have anything to bring back to their newsroom and they're going to hear it from their editor. Likewise, this technique won't always work in an unfolding crisis situation, a technical briefing, an interview panel, etc.
If, however, you possess the chops to effectively navigate a media interview, in the majority of cases, this technique should help you wrap things up in five minutes or less. It will also help you increase your control over which quotes appear in the story and, perhaps more importantly, which ones don't.