5 threats to effective media relations (and how to avoid them)

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For most people, preparing for a media interview is a stressful experience. Whatever you say during your interview is going to be printed or broadcast for thousands of people to see, including your friends, co-workers, neighbours, competitors, your kids, your spouse and, of course, your boss. And in the age of Google and YouTube, the odds are pretty good that your great grandchildren will be checking out your media relations skills someday.

So let's leave a good impression for the little yet-to-be-born tykes, shall we?

In this post, I'd like to shine the spotlight on five common threats to effective media relations. These are mistakes or oversights that can affect rookie and veteran communicators alike. They have the potential to derail your interview, to shorten your tenure with your current employer and, of course, to embarrass your future descendants. And with a bit of foresight and planning, they're all 100% preventable:

1. A poor understanding of how the media works

Pitching a story to a reporter at the end of the day (when they're on deadline). Not being able to tell your story in two or three succinct lines (which means your competitor will probably be quoted instead of you). Doing a radio interview on a cell phone (i.e. poor audio quality). Asking the reporter if you can see the questions in advance... 

These are all mistakes made by spokespeople who don't understand how the media works. Put yourself in the mindset of a reporter. Invest the time it takes to tell your story in a brief, compelling way. Accommodate the reporter's schedule and respect their deadlines. By working with the system rather than against it, you're likely to improve the quality of your media coverage.

2. Approaching an interview with a reactive mentality

To be successful in your dealings with the media, it helps to have a plan. Conducting an interview 'cold' without any forethought or preparation is a recipe for disaster. Or at the very least, mediocrity.

Think about it. Before the reporter has even called you for your comments, they've probably researched the issue, checked out your company's website, read some previous news coverage on the topic, maybe even talked to one of your competitors or an industry body. They've done their homework. And you? You're at a competitive disadvantage. You need to find out what the focus of the interview will be, create a break of at least 20 minutes, develop your messages and, only then, call the reporter back to conduct the interview. 

3. Insufficient preparation

You might be the brightest, most Stephen Hawking-like expert when it comes to your business. You may rule the speaking circuit. You're a published author. When you walk down the street, doves flutter alongside you in slow motion. That's all great. But none of that will help you succeed in a media interview. Knowing your industry inside-out won't necessarily prepare you to handle a hostile or unfair question that you didn't see coming. Being a member of Mensa won't necessarily prepare you to sidestep a hypothetical question that you shouldn't be speculating about. And that diploma on your office wall won't necessarily give you the tools you need to keep your interview to five minutes or less.

But there's good news. A small amount of preparation can help you accomplish all those things and more. Carve out at least 20 minutes (or more time if you can negotiate it) to develop a plan, craft your messages, get into a media interview mindset and anticipate questions (more on that in a moment).  

4. Failing to have a story or point of view

A media interview isn't a conversation. It's an opportunity for you to deliver your story or point of view. Using 'yes' and 'no' answers makes it almost impossible for a reporter to quote you. Likewise, sitting on the fence might be a good strategy to cover your butt, but it doesn't make for a quotable interview.  

Be sure to articulate and communicate your company's opinion in your interview. For instance, do you think that a newly-implemented regulation will harm small business? Say so and give your top three reasons why. Is that new survey from the industry association highlighting an important trend your audience needs to know about? Say so and tell them why they should pay attention.

If you're having trouble crafting your messages, try to remember the three drivers of news and how they can help you make your story more interesting to the media.

5. Failing to anticipate questions

When preparing your messages prior to your interview, a helpful exercise is to imagine the questions you're likely to be asked. This can help you better frame your story and refine your messages. That's not to say you should simply sit there and answer question after question exactly the way they're asked. The reporter has their agenda and you should have yours. But understanding the questions that are likely to come your way can help you prepare the bridging statements you'll need to get back to what you want to talk about. 

You might also want to spend a few minutes thinking of the two or three absolute worst questions you could be asked in order to develop a strategy for dealing with them. For example, is there a recent controversy your company has dealt with that the reporter might try to revive in their interview? Is there something on the national scene that's somehow related to your industry and upon which the reporter might want you to comment? You can't possibly imagine every possible question, but preparing for types of questions will help you determine in advance the types of things you'll comment on and those you won't, giving you more control over the quotes that will be attributed to you.

 Keeping these five tips in mind will help to mitigate some of the stress associated with preparing for a media interview. And by making this part of your media relations preparation strategy, you'll set the stage for more disciplined interviews and media coverage that you, your boss and your great grandchildren can all be proud of. 

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