You've seen it a million times on shows like CSI, Cold Case, Law & Order and NCIS. They cut away from a commercial for Depends and suddenly, you're transported to the interrogation room.
It's just a table, a few chairs and a one-way mirror. But this is a room with a lot of baggage. Before anyone even says a word, the power dynamic is already well established. There's no doubt about the fact that person doing the questioning is in charge. It's their house. It's their rules. The suspect? The one being questioned? They're on the other side of the power equation.
Regrettably, this is how a lot of spokespeople treat their media interviews. They spend more time worrying about the questions than they do focusing on their story. They let the reporter take the lead in shaping how the interview unfolds. They're on defense when they should be on offense. And it shows. It shows in long, rambling, undisciplined interviews. And it shows in unpredictable, inconsistent and undesirable media coverage.
I'll bet a lot of spokespeople would deny that they treat their media interviews like police interrogations. But all you have to do is watch the news to see otherwise. You can't go more than a few minutes without seeing a spokesperson make common mistakes like speculating, repeating the reporter's negative language or going off topic. And, sadly, there are many more spokespeople that we never get to see because their interview was simply 'meh' and they didn't make it into the final story.
In my opinion, there are three big reasons why people treat their interviews this way:
1. They feed into the power dynamic stereotype:
Sure, reporters do have a certain power over you. They get to take your words and distribute them to the masses. And that freaks a lot of people out. But ultimately, if you know what you're doing, you have 100% control over what those words are. Don't forget that reporters need spokespeople to give their stories credibility. So you do have a degree of power in this relationship too.
2. They don't know how to prepare:
At the beginning of a recent media training session, I asked the CEO of a tech company how he typically prepared for his media interviews. He said, "I don't'". This same executive, however, said he would prepare for six to eight hours for a 45 minute presentation. It's not that he was anti-preparation. He just assumed that media interviews were more improvised than planned. And this was reflected in his media coverage, in which he would be given a quote at or near the end of a story. A few weeks after our session, I saw a magazine article in which he was quoted four times with content that was really strong. It appears he has seen the light when it comes to interview prep.
3. The reporter gets to talk first:
This might seem basic but it's true. In any 'question-answer' interaction, the person asking the question has an inordinate amount of the power simply because they get to go first. The person who asks the question has defined, to some extent, what the answer(s) can be. This happens in most media interviews. If a reporter asks you if your organization has acted like a bully, most spokespeople would reply that no, they're not a bully. Even though you're refuting the premise, you're using their negative words. And that's 100% quotable. No media relations pro would ever give you 'We're not a bully' as a message. Now this isn't about not answering the question or coming off sounding like a politician. But I'd urge you to spend more time thinking about your story and how to deliver it and spend less time giving the reporter symmetrical answers to questions that have boxed you in or which have negative words or phrases peppered into them.
So the next time you're preparing for a media interview, get out of 'CSI-mode'. Focus your time and your energy on crafting your story, being able to tell it in compelling sentences of 20 seconds or less, including a few proof points and examples and doing at least one or two practice interviews in-house before you do the real thing. When you prepare for and execute your interviews this way, something funny happens. Your interviews become less stressful and the quality of your media coverage improves.
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