As communications professionals, we’ve all had that moment during a media interview where a journalist’s tactics and questions surprise both you and your spokesperson. In PR, we can sit around and entertain peers with our “Interview Hall of Shame.” For me, a broadcast interview firm once accidently misdialed and, instead of reaching the intended journalist, they put our spokesperson on the phone with a random businessman who neglected to alert anyone of the error and pretended to be journalist. Unaware of the error, we proceeded until the questions turned crass. Another time, during an in-person media briefing, my spokesperson went off message and decided to announce an upcoming product that we didn’t want mentioned. In the debrief, he later admitted he knew his product was being shelved and that this was his last-ditch effort to save it. Then there’s the innocent and laughable – at the start of my career, I once had to inform my spokesperson that his fly was down. In other words, anything can happen. But a PR person must be ready to protect both the spokesperson and the brand.
Media interviews can be awkward. The interview feels like a conversation – but it isn’t. Everything should be considered on the record from start to finish. Often, journalists use varying techniques to try to encourage off-track discussions, and with good reason. On their end, they are looking for a fresh soundbite, a view of the organization that may intrigue its readers. From the organization’s end, we’re looking to relay our story, appeal to readers and build brand awareness. You can’t always predict difficult moments – e.g. an interview gone sour, a reporter catching a spokesperson off-balance, a spokesperson having a bad day – but you can plan and prep for them.
Before all media interviews, review the following with your spokesperson.
Media interview preparation should always be tailored according to the familiarity your organization and your spokesperson has with each journalist. The communications team is responsible for building a briefing report to prep your spokesperson for what this reporter typically covers, what he or she would like to cover in the interview, along with the company’s key messages intended for this discussion. This material should be reviewed and discussed prior to the start of the interview. Areas of concern during the interview should be addressed with a sense of urgency, out of respect to the journalist and the spokesperson. With careful practice, you can reduce your chances of winning the “hall of shame contest” and secure positive media coverage to help build brand awareness.
If all else fails and you just need to laugh about interviews gone wrong, check out one of my favorite items often shared in executive media training – a clip from The Bob Newhart Show from 1972.
What words of advice do you usually share with your spokesperson?
Laura Sudnik is a research analyst for SiriusDecisions’ Strategic Communications Management service. She has 18 years of corporate communications experience and has spent her career helping b-to-b organizations build their public relations, IT analyst relations and social media programs. Follow Laura on Twitter @LauraSudnik.