Handling a Media Interview

NEWS AND INFORMATION have never been as readily accessible as they are today. With the internet, twitter, and podcasts to supplement traditional news sources, it is possible to be in touch with developments around the world every minute of the day.

Our desire for news is almost insatiable and this has had a profound impact on the world of business. Financial analysts in Hong Kong know about overnight moves on Wall Street before leaving home in the morning; marketing directors can track competitors through any number of websites, and stockholders can watch (on the business channel of their choice) breaking news that may affect stock prices.

Employees can now know more about what is happening in their companies from a quick Google search than from a departmental meeting or the in-house newsletter.

For such reasons, business leaders should never underestimate the value of information or the importance of the media. 

While the tools and methods for communicating a corporate message have expanded, and the news cycle has sped up substantially, the fundamental principles of dealing with traditional media remain the same. Therefore, a corporate leader must know how to deal with the media, or risk appearing ignorant, dishonest or out of touch.

Some leaders think the best way to avoid these problems is by avoiding the media. This attitude probably stems from the fear of the unknown or of losing control. However, it can also be seen as an evasion of responsibilities. A better approach than taking cover is to gain insight into how the media works and to understand how to maximise the benefits of publicity.

Remember that the media see interviewees as “talent”. If you are long-winded, unqualified or dull, the media will quickly go elsewhere for information or comments. Poor presentation can ruin an otherwise interesting news story. So no company representative can afford to come across as impassive, aggressive or unprofessional. In contrast, if you are well-informed, engaging and to the point, what you say will automatically attract wider attention and more favourable coverage. The following rules of engagement should help:

News stories on TV tend to fit a standard format, generally running for about 90 seconds to 120 seconds. Typically, two or three people are featured so there is very limited time to get your message across. The key is to be concise and, if possible, compelling. If the interview is not live, isolate the main facts and remember that style can beat substance.

A punchy quote or a good one-liner is more likely to be used on air than a series of facts or statistics. These can always be presented graphically or in the voice-over. The interviewee’s role is to flesh out the story by adding colour and emphasis.

The structure of most TV news items follows a standard pattern: anchor’s introduction, the reporter’s lead-in, quotes by interviewees and then comment or analysis by the reporter to tie things up. Good footage makes a good story. Therefore, if your company can offer anything visual, you have a better chance of creating an impact on TV and getting more time on screen.

Be well prepared for a print interview. You would not get away with giving just two or three short, 15-second answers, as you might on radio or TV. Print journalists will generally want to explore the issues and look for new angles. They are more likely to specialise than their broadcasting colleagues and, therefore, will expect detailed replies and a broader range of information.

For obvious reasons, the interview may be less formal in tone and you may not realise when it has actually begun. Therefore, introductory comments, casual asides, jokes or personal opinions could be taken as “on the record”, unless you state clearly that they should not be.

It is unrealistic to think you can “control” stories appearing in print. Other sources may be used to give balance and alternative viewpoints, and the final version might be a general assessment mainly reflecting the writer’s conclusions. Your task is to explain your own company’s perspective unambiguously.

As with television, the reporter will be listening for punchy, colourful or idiomatic quotes. For example, in a hostile takeover, if you describe the company as “David fending off Goliath”, it might be clichéd, but it is also likely to be included in the article. In essence, you are helping the journalist write an interesting story by providing some usable material.

Everyone working in the media has deadlines and sometimes these are extremely tight. Business executives know all about meeting monthly sales targets or getting the annual report done on schedule, but occasionally they forget that other professions work differently. If you cannot provide information, someone else will and the news cycle will move on.

Also, it is worth remembering that what you regard as interesting news, such as achieving record profits or relocating your regional headquarters, does not necessarily stir the readers, listeners or viewers. The journalist is on the lookout for something different, not simply corporate milestones. 

For a leader, it is now a recognised part of the job to have strong media skills. It is not enough to be an expert in the technical aspects of the job, to innovate, or to keep the company running like clockwork.

At any time, what is happening, whether good or bad, may have to be communicated to the investment community or the world at large. This must be done with authority, clarity and confidence. 

Just remember that you have full control over what you actually say when talking to the media. The questions may be unexpected or unwanted, but if you are well-briefed and know the key points to convey to customers, shareholders or the public, you will be newsworthy and come across well.


Press Etiquette
Giving effective media interviews involves a three-step process. First, develop a strategy to define your objectives, understand the journalist, and consider the likely audience. Next, think through what your key message should be and arrange your ideas in a logical sequence. Try to look at them from an outsider’s point of view and double-check any relevant statistics or backup material. If possible, rehearse before the interview and make sure you are up-to-date. Finally, try to be succinct and interesting, speak at a measured pace and, no matter what, maintain your composure. Be conscious of your gestures or body language and, when handling unexpected questions, take the time to give a fully considered reply.

Bridging Techniques
Bridging is a technique that gives you better control and the ability to be more effective when making public statements and handling questions. The key is to create a link or segue between the actual question and the point of information you want to highlight. For instance, if a journalist asks for comments on a new technology, which is outside your area of expertise, you could say: “I can’t comment on that specifically, but our company is constantly examining new processes to ensure that we remain a market leader and retain a competitive edge.” In this way, you acknowledge the question but bridge to a topic you want to emphasise.

Maintaining Control
When dealing with a journalist, there are certain things to keep in mind. If possible, meet on your home ground. Guard against off-the-cuff remarks before the interview. Find out where, when and how your comments will be used. Clarify any specific ground rules or time limits beforehand, and remember the wider audience you are addressing. Correct any misstatement and do not become flustered. Most of all, keep your objectives in sight.