When it comes to publicity, as Richard Branson once said: “A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad”.
And it’s true – a good PR story is what every person, professional and business wants. But understanding how that story is crafted and the role the interview plays in the entire PR process is where people lack an incredible amount of knowledge.
The media is your best friend and your worst enemy. Understanding how journalists operate and what editors want is essential to building your story. Members of the media, like you, have their own objectives and – let me absolutely frank here – none of their goals are around helping you build your brand. However, if you’re able to understand what they want and how to position your story in a way that will interest their readers, then you’re light years ahead of most people.
If you are prepared, you can turn the interview into something truly beneficial for yourself and your business.
If you don’t know why your story is newsworthy or how to present this to the media, then perhaps it’s time for you to hire a PR expert. But in the meantime, here are a few tips to broaden your understanding.
DO understand what “off the record” actually means
Rule number one: If you have just finished the interview and turn to the journalist and say, “by the way, that stuff I said about XYZ was off the record”, I have some news for you: it was absolutely, 100% NOT off the record. If you have a good relationship with the journalist and you’ve just realised you let something confidential slip, then you might have a chance to retract it, but otherwise… you’ve effed up.
Stating something is off the record is a game of trust; it doesn’t legally require any journalist not to publish something, or absolve you of responsibility around something you said. That being said, most journalists will honour the request if you state beforehand which comments are off the record.
DO also understand the importance of exclusivity
Press conferences are great, but sometimes a journalist is looking for something new and exclusive from you when they approach you afterwards for comment.
If a journalist has spent time gathering information about something and then asks you about it – and you answer them – don’t then go and tell every other journalist you know what their fresh story angle is. Honouring the fact the journo has done the hard work is something that goes a long way to build trust in an on-going media relationship.
DO your research and come prepared
You should do your research on the publication and the journalist interviewing you. They may not like it, but it’s all part of the game (and they’ve done all the same research on you, of course.) Often, your PR agency or internal communications will do this for you, but if not, just give them a quick Google.
Go into the interview understanding the kind of stories the newspaper or magazine runs, the tone of the articles the journalist writes and their interview style. If you can get an idea of whether the journalist is a total ball buster or a more friendly interviewer, you’ll have a better idea about how to prepare any responses.
DO learn how to answer the same question three different ways
Some journalists love to do this thing where they’ll ask the same question a number of different ways to try and get as much information out of you as possible. It’s an effective tactic, and it also lets them know of any holes in your facts.
Unless what you’re being interviewed about is controversial or scandalous, you don’t really need to worry too much about this, but it can’t hurt to practise a few different ways to answer the hard question you know they’re going to ask you.
DO keep your emotions in check
A sudden angry outburst or stream of emotion is never a good thing in an interview. Keep it professional – even if it’s difficult. Some journalists will probe knowing full well it is frustrating you, but absolutely nothing good comes from letting them see the steam coming out of your ears.
DO have a PR professional on hand
Public relations staff are there to act as support during an interview, so if you need to, use them. However, journalists hate it when an interview subject repeatedly turns to their PR person for direction, so avoid using them as a crutch. Instead, practice your answers ahead of time and work together to have a clear idea of how you will (or won’t) approach certain questions.
DON’T turn down an interview with no reason given
If a journalist calls you for an interview and you’re not interested, don’t turn them down without giving them a legitimate reason. Legitimate. If you keep fobbing them off because you “don’t have time”, they won’t buy it, but if you say you can’t speak at the moment because you’re bound by an internal communications policy, then tell them that. And always, always honour their request as soon as you are able to talk.
DON’T tell the journalist what kind of questions to ask
There’s nothing a journalist hates more than being told how to do their job. Think about the times when someone might have questioned your credibility or ability to operate – it’s not nice, is it? At the end of the day, it will put the journalist in a bad mood and could sour the relationship. One day, you might want them to ask you certain questions about a new product or a positive business story, and maybe they just won’t.
DON’T argue if they change their line of questioning
Journalists are often asked to provide a line of questioning ahead of an interview. Some will do it, others absolutely will not (in Asia, this practice is more common, but in other regions a journalist will scoff if you ask for their questions ahead of time.)
If they have given you questions, be aware these are only a guide. Depending on the flow of the interview, how well you answer questions and the direction the conversation goes, a journalist will almost always change their line of questioning or ask additional ones. Don’t point out that they’re not sticking to the plan – or they’ll stick you the middle finger.
DON’T answer with “no comment”
If you can’t or won’t answer a question the journalist really wants an answer to, be prepared for them to source the information from elsewhere.
Where possible, it’s not recommended to respond with “no comment”. It leaves your position vulnerable and the subject matter open to discussion on the basis that they have sought a right of reply from you (for a fair and balanced article) and you’ve simply told them you’re not interested.
If you cannot comment, tell them why. Legal reasons and confidentiality agreements are legitimate answers (provided they’re true) and if you simply don’t know the answer, let them know. Tell them you’ll look into it and get back to them, and then honour that commitment.
DON’T lie, spin or ‘tweak’ the truth. Ever.
Lies have a way of being exposed, and your reputation will be hugely damaged if you were found to be fudging information. Not only will the interview have been a complete waste of time, it will make you and your company look dishonest, unprofessional and foolish.
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