How to Botch a Media Interview in Three Easy Steps

Here is a hard truth even for PR professionals: Interviews are tricky – full stop.

Interviews are a delicate dance. Even the best, most polished of spokespeople can get them wrong. Need an example? I suggest you check out this blog from Caster’s Rachel Bradshaw.

In the 13+ years I’ve been doing PR and helping people learn how to talk to the media effectively, observing and participating in countless media trainings, and cleaning up my fair share of bad interviews, here are the three most common ways I’ve seen people botch a media interview.

The “I’ve Got This” Mentality

Being media-ready does not end with media training with your favorite PR pro; you may feel confident after the initial training session and in the ensuing interviews. But, just like a muscle that is not regularly exercised, your memory and media skills can atrophy – and quickly. If you are heading into an interview (any interview at any time) and think that you’ve “got it” and don’t need to prepare…think again. It is rare that I’ve seen someone wing it in an interview and stick the landing.

Preparing for an interview should involve more than seeing your Outlook calendar reminder pop up 15 minutes before the meeting. You have to budget time to prepare. What should that look like? If you are lucky, you may have gotten interview questions ahead of time and those should be reviewed with your PR team to ensure your messaging is aligned. If you did not get questions, then you should review recent articles from the journalist so you can anticipate likely questions and see how your company fits into what they have been working on.

Going into an interview with confidence is great, but going in with the false sense of confidence that you don’t need to prepare is dangerous even with the most friendly of press.Best Practice: Make the time after every media interview to debrief with your PR team. Getting feedback on what went well and what could be improved is much more constructive when it is in real-time. Another pro-tip? Keep a file of this feedback. I review our media prep file with an exec before every media interview to help us steer clear of past stumbling blocks and jog our memory on what we talked about the last time we met with this journalist.

Disregarding Relevance

We work hard on messaging. In fact, it’s some of the most fulfilling work we do with our clients. When you go through media training it’s a chance to really hone your message. So we totally get it when a messaging point, statistic or anecdote becomes a favorite reference.

On the flipside – sticking too hard to your talking points and the keys YOU want to get across can cause a BIG MISS for the journalist. Pay attention to what they are asking you, and provide answers that are relevant to what they are covering. Some old-school PR practices may tell you to “answer the question you want to answer.” In some cases, that can work, but my recommendation would be unless your PR pro has told you that you are a media interview savant, this tactic should not be the default when approaching an interview. When you keep to the same talk track interview-to-interview, you are not providing that journalist with a unique perspective or even something uniquely quotable. And what does that mean for said journalist? That you just wasted their time. With adequate preparation, as outlined in misstep #1, you can also dodge this mistake.

Best Practice: If you’re really stumped on how to answer a question it is completely acceptable to say you’ll need to get back to the journalist on that. Not only does that answer provide a great reason for follow-up, but answering their question with a non-relevant answer could jeopardize your opportunity for future interviews.


Forgetting Two Big Media Misnomers

Last but not least let’s review a few media misnomers so there is no confusion. Movies, TV and even popular culture can lead us to think that there are rules of engagement with the media that in fact are not reality.

Misnomer #1 – Off the Record/On Background – Friendly reminder that you cannot spill every detail of your company’s latest acquisition and follow those juicy details with “Oh, by the way, this is off the record.” Need more clarity? Our Friends at PR Newswire share:

If no one deems a conversation off the record or sets rules in advance, most journalists will accept information gathered as “on the record.”

Some conversations may also include “on background,” during which select information: “can be published only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position.”

Misnomer #2 – “No Comment” is, in fact, a comment – As CNBC put it:

“Once upon a time, saying ‘no comment’ when you wanted to decline an interview was a benign statement. Now, the phrase has become loaded with meaning, mostly suggesting that you are hiding something rather than coming clean.”

Of course, we don’t want clients to “shoot from the hip” when confronted with a difficult question. But before jumping to an immediate “no comment” reaction, take a step back – confer with your PR team and craft an answer. Even if it is within the “no comment” arena, there are ways to soften the answer.

If you’re preparing to face the delicate dance of a media interview, enlisting the help of a professional choreographer (AKA a killer PR Team) can help you avoid some of these pitfalls. Keeping your interview skills sharp is important and will help your company gain coverage that can keep you at the top of your mind and positioned as a thought leader. Still have questions about if you are really media ready? Check out our Mastering Becoming Media Ready blog or shoot us a note!

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