A media interview is NOT a conversation


If I only had 10 seconds to prepare someone for an important media interview, this is what I would tell them:  

A media interview is NOT a conversation.

A hard core, full day media training session should still be the minimum prerequisite for any spokesperson preparing to face the media on behalf of their organization. But when it comes to boiling down all those tips, tricks, techniques and strategies into one sentence, for my money, this is the best one there is. 

If you examine failed or sub-par media interviews, it's incredible to note how many of them go off the rails because the person being interviewed is treating the interaction like a conversation. I should say right off the bat that not everyone agrees with me on this point. PR students have actually tweeted me in the past to tell me about instructors who believe the ideal media interview (from the spokesperson's perspective) is one that closely mirrors a conversation. I disagree. 

Now...I should clarify. There's a difference between being conversational and treating an interview like a conversation. I'm not suggesting that spokespeople shouldn't be courteous and engaging in a media interview. But during your media interview, it's important to avoid the subconscious 'habits of conversation' we've all picked up over the years.

Here's the dilemma: A media interview looks and feels just like a conversation. Why wouldn't you slip into conversation mode? We've all had tens of thousands of conversations. We're virtually programmed for them. But how many media interviews have most people had throughout their careers? Three? One? None? Why should we be surprised, then, when so many people treat an interview like a conversation? The problem is that it's a sloppy, non-strategic way to conduct an interview and your key messages have little chance of ending up in the story.

With that in mind, here are five conversational habits that can sabotage your next media interview (and what to do about them):

1. Mindlessly answering questions

The best conversations are free-flowing, back and forth dialogues. You don't think twice before answering any questions that come your way. The conversation can flow from topic to topic seamlessly and effortlessly.

The danger: Sitting there mindlessly answering question after question is an undisciplined way to conduct a media interview. You're handing over the steering wheel to the reporter. You're a passenger instead of being a driver. So don't be surprised when the car stops and you get out and have no idea where you are. While an interview like this might feel like an interesting exchange while it's happening, you're likely to be surprised by the quotes that are finally attributed to you (and how far away they are from the quotes you wanted to have in the story).  

The solution: I don't believe spokespeople should avoid questions or try to weasel out of them. But they should approach their interviews in a more strategic manner. This isn't a chat with an old friend. It's a media interview with someone who has no particular interest in your personal well-being or your company's media relations objectives. They're not necessarily out to make you look bad. But, by the same token, they're not out to make you look good. They have a story to file and anything you say is fair game. So take a few seconds to contemplate each question. Then, navigate to your most appropriate subject matter. Use bridging phrases or take the opportunity to refocus the interview if you need to. Do this properly and you will have much greater control over your media relations outcomes.

2. Using the reporter's words in your answers

During a conversation, it's natural for us to sometimes use the other person's words in our responses. Often, we're not even aware we're doing it. It's human nature. It's a way to maintain continuity of the dialogue and let the other person know you understood the question.

Bob: "Hey, I noticed you ordered the lasagna tonight. How did you like it? I thought it was a little overcooked."
Barbara: "I wouldn't necessarily say the lasagna was overcooked. But it wasn't quite as good as it was the last time we were here."  

In a conversation about overcooked lasagna, the fact that Barbara is using Bob's words in her response is no big deal. But if Barbara is a union spokesperson and Bob is a reporter, it could be:

Bob: "Talks have broken off for the second time in two weeks. Is it fair to say that your union has dropped the ball on these contract negotiations?"
Barbara: "I wouldn't necessarily say we dropped the ball. We're as displeased as anyone about this latest setback."

The danger: Even though Barbara is refuting the claim and giving what she thinks is a positive response, she's using the reporter's negative 'dropping the ball' phrase in her answer. Her response should sound positive. Instead, it sounds defensive and is couched in language usually used to describe failure.

In a typical media article, a spokesperson will get one or two quotes. In the example above, half of Barbara's quote consists of the reporter's words, not her own. That means if she gets one quote in the story, only 50% of it is hers. The other half of the quote was subconsciously 'planted' by the reporter. 

The solution: Remember what CBS did after Janet Jackson's famous wardrobe malfunction? They implemented a five second delay on future Super Bowl half-time broadcasts. Do the same in your interviews. Take a few seconds to form the response in your mind. See the words before you speak them. Make a conscious effort to recognize negative or volatile words you might be inclined to repeat. Edit those words out of your answers before you start speaking. The result? Responses that are 100% your own. 

3. Jumping in to fill those 'awkward silences'

The awkward silence. The pregnant pause. Whatever you want to call it, it has undone more than its fair share of spokespeople. Your interview is going well. You're nailing your messages, one after another. Then, there's silence. It's just a few seconds, but it can be disconcerting for the person being interviewed, especially if you're on the phone and you can't see the journalist's facial expressions.

You feel uncomfortable. Your stress level spikes. Your mind starts racing. And then it happens. You blurt IT out ('it' being something other than the messages on the index card in your pocket). You don't know where it came from. But there it was. Lurking in your subconscious, just waiting to sabotage your interview. All it needed was an opening. The reporter gave it to you in the form of an awkward silence. And you fell for it.

The danger: If the thing you blurt out is more interesting than any of your other answers, guess what's going to end up in the journalist's story? Even worse, that non-message just displaced one of the actual messages that might have appeared in the story if you hadn't felt uncomfortable and started talking.    

The solution: Don't let the awkward silence be awkward. It's worth noting that there are several reasons why you might experience an extended period of silence during an interview. The reporter might be scribbling or typing your answers, trying to catch up to your spoken words. Maybe they're taking a few seconds to think of another question. Or perhaps they're letting you hang there for a few seconds, hoping you'll offer up some more information (this is actually an old technique taught in many journalism schools and newsrooms). So instead of blurting out something off-message when you're feeling a bit uncomfortable, instead, say something like the following:

  • "Does that answer your question?"
  • "Do you have any other questions?"
  • "Are you still there?"

Or...just sit there in silence and wait. None of these things are quotable. And the integrity of your interview and your messaging strategy will still be intact.

4. Not having a game plan

We don't typically devise a game plan for a chat with a friend or a co-worker. But, then again, our friend or co-worker isn't typically publishing excerpts of our discussion in a national newspaper the next day. It's vital to create a plan before the actual interview begins.

The danger: By going into an interview without a plan, you're putting yourself in what I call 'goaltender mode' (yes, I know, another hockey analogy). You're the goalie and the reporter is firing frozen, vulcanized rubber pucks at your head at 95 mph. In goaltender mode, you're on the defensive. The success of your interview will be based on the number of times the reporter doesn't get one past you. When it comes to conducting media interviews, this is not a position of strength. After all, even a goalie who gets a shutout can't get a win. Your team also has to provide some offense, which, translates into delivering your messages. 

The solution: Before you engage with the reporter for the interview, create a break to prepare. Get at least 20 to 30 minutes (or as much time as you can negotiate...if you're being interviewed by a weekly paper, for example, you might be able to buy yourself a day or two). Close your door, sharpen your figurative pencil and develop your game plan. Write out three to five messages. Anticipate questions. Come up with a strategy for keeping the interview to about five minutes in length. Google the reporter's work on this topic (if you have time) for additional research. Prepare your bridging phrases and get into your media interview head space. Then, and only then, conduct the interview. By creating a plan, you'll be empowering yourself and helping ensure a better outcome for your organization.

5. Being led off-topic easily

If you're anything like me, your conversations with friends can be all over the map. In the span of 20 minutes, you can find yourself talking about politics, sports, current events, family, technology, vacations, movies, books, food and more. Some of the best conversations are those free-wheeling ones that jump from topic to topic. Allowing yourself to be led off-topic this easily in a media interview, however, is a recipe for disaster.  

The danger: You've been asked by your CEO to do an interview with a national radio station about your company's new product line. The PR department has armed you with your messages. You've practiced them extensively. The interview starts well. The reporter asks a few questions about the product launch, but then shifts gears and starts talking about competition from China. Then, you're answering questions about your upcoming collective bargaining discussions. Soon, they're asking you about those rumours that your CEO is about to be replaced by the board. How you handle those off-topic questions will have an impact on the content of the story and, quite possibly, the duration and quality of your employment. 

The solution: Be like Arnold Schwarzenegger. More specifically, be like the character he played in the movie The Terminator. The Terminator had one job. They could shoot him in the chest, rip his face off, burn him beyond recognition and he still couldn't be distracted from his mission. That's the kind of focus and commitment an effective spokesperson should bring to their media interviews (without the gratuitous violence, of course). I'm not saying you should be closed-minded, outright ignore the reporter's questions or sound robotic in your responses. But do keep a singular focus on your mission and the understanding that there will likely only be two quotes attributed to you after this interview and that your ability to stay on topic will, to a great extent, determine what those messages are. 

Final thoughts

I firmly believe that the conscious recognition that a media interview is NOT a conversation can be one of the most powerful concepts for spokespeople preparing to speak with the media. Being mindful of this fact and conducting yourself accordingly will help boost your confidence and lead to more positive and predictable media coverage for you and your organization.

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