Handling the Media

by Jennifer Stenhouse

What should I do before an interview?

A journalist wants an interview. What do you do first?

Breathe

Breathe deeply to avoid panic. Seriously – breathing can be your finest friend when it comes to avoiding nerves and dealing with a media interview competently and with authenticity.

Pay attention to your breathing. Breathe deeply and slowly from the abdomen. Practise this in your daily life; most importantly, consciously breathe deep and slow when you are faced with a stressful situation and you’ll find you deal with it much better.

When you are shocked or stressed by something, either your breathing automatically stops or it becomes shallow and quick. This is part of the fight or flight response, which doesn’t serve you here. Shallow, high breathing has a number of effects:

  • You talk too fast, in a higher register – not great for good communication
  • You stay nervous
  • You starve the brain of oxygen, so of course you can’t remember what it was you wanted to say.

Now practise breathing deeply and talking only on the out breath. You will notice how you slow down, lower your voice register (sounds more credible) and pause on the in-breath (again, adds credibility). The other good news is you get oxygen to your brain so that it can remember what you’re supposed to be saying.

Prepare – ask questions

There are two types of media encounter: the proactive and the reactive. In the proactive, you take the initiative to promote your own story by contacting journalists. In the reactive, a journalist contacts you with questions.

What should you do when a journalist rings you up?

Key tip

Do not give an immediate interview. Always take time to prepare first. Call back once you’ve done your homework by working through your checklist.

But make sure you do call back.

Be clear who would be the best person to give the interview and then arrange a time for them to do it. Give yourself or your spokesperson time to prepare what you/they are going to say and how you/they are going to say it. Promise to phone back – and do it.

Ask the journalist:

  • Where are you from?
  • What is the story?
  • Where did you get the story?
  • Who else have you spoken to/will you be speaking to?
  • What is your deadline?

Ask yourself:

  • What will my organisation get out of this interview?
  • Who should be doing this interview? Am I the right person?
  • What is our message?
  • What will the journalist want to get out of it?
  • If we refuse, what damage will ‘no comment’ cause?
Keys to media success
  • Know what the journalist wants.
  • Define your outcome.
  • Clarify your message – know what you want to say.
  • Prepare, prepare and prepare again.
  • Stick to positives.
  • Communicate from the heart.
  • Breathe – and relax!

Prepare, prepare and prepare again

Thorough preparation is one of the keys to giving successful interviews.

Assess the audience

Before you engage with the media in any way, whether you are to talk to a journalist or perhaps send information out in written form, think of your ultimate audience – the people beyond the journalist. What response do you want to get from them?

Once you know which media outlet wants to hear from you, ask yourself:

  • Who are their target audience?
  • What do they know?
  • What language do they use?
  • What are their interests?
  • What makes them angry?
  • What are their preconceptions?

Once you know this, you can tailor or adapt your message, and the way you present it, so that it’s appropriate.

Prepare your message

  • What do we/I want to say?
  • How can I say it in 15 words or fewer?
  • How can I couch what I have to say in active and positive terms?
  • Do I have any sub-messages? (Three would be ample.)
  • Is my message so simple I can drop it into any answer?
  • Will everyone understand it?

You have the right to know

As a rule, do not allow a journalist to conduct an interview, either with you or a member of your organisation, without knowing the following:

  • The title and style of the programme or journal for which the interview is intended
  • Whether the interview is to be live or recorded
  • How long it will last
  • Its broad outline
  • Whether other people will be interviewed at the same time as you or your spokesperson
  • When the interview will be printed or transmitted
  • How you or your spokesperson will be credited.
Key tip

If a print or broadcast journalist telephones you for an interview, always ask if they are recording what you say. It has been known for radio journalists to telephone people and put them straight on the air without them being aware that they were broadcasting live.

Remember – always be careful to direct the journalist to the appropriate interviewee and never do an interview without preparation.

You do not have the right to...

You do not generally have a right to

  • See a transcript or copy of the interview before it is published
  • See a detailed list of questions before the interview
  • Veto certain questions (a sure way of being asked them, to ensure impartiality)
  • Determine where and when your interview will appear.

Going to turn an interview down?

If you decide NOT to do the interview, be as helpful as possible. Almost always, however, you will decide to do the interview, because it is an opportunity for you to get your message across.

You may find yourself in the position of having to give an interview personally in place of your designated spokesperson. In any case, it is as well to be aware of what’s involved.

No comment

There will be circumstances where you are tempted to say ‘No comment’, if approached by the media. It isn’t advisable. Superstars and other famous people certainly think they can get away with it, but if you look closely, you’ll notice how this course is usually counterproductive.

Firstly, you miss out on a chance for some or all of the benefits. Secondly, nothing is more guaranteed to irritate a journalist with whom you really want to be quickly developing rapport. There is a third consideration – if there’s been some sort of allegation, they’ll assume you’re guilty. The hunt for the ‘facts’ will start – and you’ll be fair game.

Always try to find something to say, even if it is just: ‘It’s too early to be able to tell you anything now. But as soon as I have got to the bottom of this, I will be delighted to speak to you again.’ If you can’t manage the blandest of comments, then make yourself scarce or issue a written statement, until you’ve prepared yourself for the head to head.

Tip

You can never predict the outcome of a media encounter with certainty, but if you prepare, you’ll do well. Have a positive outcome in mind.

Know what the journalist wants and learn your facts – backwards if necessary.