Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What I’ve Learned from Doing TV Interviews

By: Laura Calderón, Communications Consultant
In October 2012, our chapter was fortunate to host Dr. Joe Trahan, APR, for our annual workshop. He focused on that dreaded PR function—the tough on-camera media interview.
I played investigative reporter and conducted mock interviews with workshop participants. Feedback was positive and confirmed how important spokesperson skills are for our profession.
For almost nine years, I served as a spokesperson for a large tax-funded organization. We handled the two most precious things in a person’s life—their children and their money—topics that frequently brought reporters to my office. In the spirit of Dr. Trahan’s workshop, here are my two cents on what I learned during those years of doing media interviews.
Think like a reporter. Become a TV news junkie and watch investigative reporters like a hawk. Listen to the types of questions they ask. After a while, you’ll pick up their pattern and be able to anticipate most reporters’ questions. If you really get into this, check out www.ire.org, the Investigative Reporters and Editors organizational web site, for a look into the mindset.
Do your research and know your subject matter. Assume the role of reporter as you gather information within your organization. Probe the weaknesses in your case because the reporter will do the same.  Watch the Sunday morning political news shows—these are especially good for examples of bridging to key points. Part of your research should include knowing the reporter’s style. This is another good reason to watch the local news.
Be ready for questions that are likely to come. Quite often, the reporter’s opening question is, “What happened?”  This is your opportunity to lay out your story as you want it told. In an interview about an organizational blunder, a reporter often asks, “What are you going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” Be ready to highlight the positive steps your organization is taking. At the end of an interview, the reporter is likely to ask you, “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” Repeat or deliver your most important messages.  Quite often, this is the sound bite that gets aired.
Practice your interview with another person acting as the reporter. Doing a good interview is like playing a sport—practice makes perfect. In addition to good research, practice is the single most critical piece to managing an interview. It gives you confidence and the simulation can show you where you are strong as well as weak. For years, New York City Mayor Giuliani and key staff set aside one day per month to practice their communication skills. So when Sept. 11 came, his communication skills were honed.
Don’t be afraid to hold your ground with the reporter when it makes sense. In general, you want to cooperate as much as possible with the reporter. But sometimes this can work against you. If a reporter wants to interview you outside in 100 degree weather with the sun in your face, it is OK to say no and do it inside. But remember, politeness is key!
Sometimes a reporter really is unfair and biased. This is a tough one because it is difficult to prove and media outlets view this complaint like the boy that cried wolf. There are no pat answers on what to do. One approach is to give in and try to limit your story to as few news cycles as possible. Or you can play hardball PR—check out Rusty Cawley’s book “Hardball PR: How to Get Tough with ‘Investigative’ Reporters.” I have filmed an investigative reporter’s interview and then posted the full interview on our web site because our comments were highly edited. Reporters say this doesn’t work, but I can tell you it can. In another case, we presented hard evidence of the reporter’s bias to the TV station’s news director, general manager and legal counsel. They were skeptical and dismissive until the irrefutable proof came out. We were lucky to have evidence. Tread carefully because there is truth to the old adage of never doing battle with people who buy ink by the barrel.
Provide written background if the subject matter warrants it. If your topic is complex, a brief write-up helps their understanding and prevents reporting errors. This is helpful when your story depends on statistics, legal references or processes, or chronology.
The ambush interview is frightening. Here’s what I know from one local TV news outlet. This outlet will only ambush you if you have refused their request for an interview and after their legal department has given the OK. So if you refuse an interview, check the bushes for lurking reporters. One of my favorite blogs, www.mrmediatraining.com, advises: “…the reporter is after one thing: A great visual that makes you look guilty. If you respond with defensiveness, anger, or shock, the news outlet will run the tape of your bad reaction repeatedly, often for days. You win an ambush by denying the reporter a great visual. If you’re ever ambushed, remember the advice offered in that old deodorant ad: Never let ‘em see you sweat. By remaining calm, you can prevent reporters from getting the compelling ‘money’ shot they desire.”’ Check out the blog for more advice.
 These tips have served me well. I hope that they will do the same for you.

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