Every veteran PR person has a few instructive stories about staffing high-profile media interviews. Some stories have happy endings — while others, well…not so much. Thus, before getting to the 10 tips below, let’s go behind the scenes of two memorable interviews I staffed to fine tune the context.
EDITOR’S NOTE: ENJOY PART 4 AND PRIOR OF THIS SERIES BELOW
The first story had a happy ending. I was staffing a taped interview for a federal agency chairwoman with “60 Minutes” of CBS News — the influential and long-running top-rated TV news show. The correspondent was the legendary broadcaster Mike Wallace (father to Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday”).
I can still hear the iconic TV correspondent prepping his vocal chords in varying tones just before the cameras rolled: “La, La, La…
The interview was going well until Mike asked the agency chairwoman a perplexing legal question which caused her to panic. She was not a lawyer but had been briefed by the agency’s office of legal counsel. However, I also made sure a staff attorney was in the room during the interview, just in case. That’s because in the world of PR and media relations you have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
The chairwoman grew visibly agitated with the camera rolling and froze like a proverbial deer in the headlights. “Where are my lawyers!” she screamed.
That’s when I stepped in to pause the interview. Fortunately, Mike and his producer were very understanding, which is not always the case with big TV personalities. Thus, I got the chairwoman to calm down and step away for a minute to speak with the staff attorney.
Fortunately, the chairwoman got it right when the taping resumed.
When the story finally aired, her gaffe was omitted. Moreover, it turned out to be a rare favorable story by 60 Minutes regarding a federal government agency — whereas most stories take the government to the “woodshed” over alleged malfeasance and reports by whistleblowers.
Whew! Mission accomplished.
John Stossel Strikes Again
On the flip side, I recall another time when it turned out differently. The taped interview was being conducted with the flamboyant and showboating TV correspondent, John Stossel. We didn’t exactly trust the TV program, ABC News “20/20” — much less Stossel (pictured above)— due to their reputation for hit job stories on the government. Nevertheless, the decision was made for the agency chairman to conduct the interview. All the pre-interview terms had been agreed upon after a long tug-of-war with the show.
Then the interview day arrived and the two men sat down in the chairman’s office at agency headquarters. But as the camera rolled, Stossel played the bad actor for which he was infamously known. He asked the chairman a loaded question which we specifically agreed would not be asked on camera. Obviously, the chairman refused to answer.
That’s when Stossel surprisingly threw his clipboard in the air, with arms raised to show purported shock, and berated the chairman for not knowing the answer.
It was at that point the chairman grew angry and pointedly told Stossel the interview was over. He got up and walked away as the camera continued to roll with Stossel looking on. The resulting story aired the entire debacle rather than editing it out. This had obviously been a setup, in hindsight.
In the years ahead, Stossel departed ABC News for Fox News Channel, as rumors swirled that he was fired or forced out over allegations of factually inaccurate reporting and dismissing basic journalism standards.
Let’s face it, speaking to the news media can be a tricky business which most people dread. This is especially true if you’re not a PR practitioner or a professional communicator.
Moreover, if you happen to be the CEO of a company then it’s likely your job to interact with the news media — whether traditional, digital, social or otherwise.
The media views CEOs as the face of the company, literally and figuratively
Whether a CEO goes on camera or video streams on Skype, they should be sending a clear, coordinated and strategic message to buttress the brand. Meanwhile, some journalists might be ultra-aggressive during an interview and set traps along the way. But don’t fall prey to media mishaps.
While the media tips below are absolutely essential for executive leaders and managers, they can likewise be applied down the corporate ladder.
Just remember that you are speaking for a company which employs hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of people, has a large consumer base and has a well-defined brand image to protect and maintain. That’s why preparation is paramount.
First Steps to Prep
Following are the initial steps to take in laying the groundwork to prepare for a media interview — one which, hopefully, will result in positive press for you and the organization you represent.
Step 1. Agree to the story angle and focus…
First, you should request a pre-interview phone call with any media outlet to discuss the parameters and terms of the interview. You may even want to request advance questions or topic areas. Although many media outlets prohibit reporters from providing questions in advance, not all do. Thus, it never hurts to ask because the more prepared you are, the more likely your media interview will be successful.
Step 2. Provide substantive background info…
Always help educate reporters about “hot button” issues from your organization’s perspective.
This is especially relevant if no pre-interview exchange has been arranged. Comprehensive background info will serve as a preface to the main points you plan on making during the media interview. Remember that not all reporters are subject matter experts and some must juggle multiple beats in a fast and fluid news environment. Always help educate reporters about “hot button” issues from your organization’s perspective. This practical and prudent approach may help deflect negative or loaded questions in advance, as well as set the stage to make your case in the strongest and most persuasive manner.
Step 3. Anticipate likely questions and answers…
This is especially necessary if the reporter rejects your request for advance questions or fails to provide appropriate information about the angle and focus of their story. Think about what points and counter-points you want to make? What headline would you like to see? Don’t ever just “wing it” with media interviews, or the resulting story may cause more harm than good.
Perfecting the Prep
Once you have accomplished the aforementioned initial three steps of this process then move on to the following:
Step 4. Draft talking points…
This should be done in consultation with legal, policy and communications experts within your organization. Make sure to include at least two to three major talking points which you want reflected in the resulting story. Putting your points down on paper will serve as a vital reference during and after the interview, in addition to enhancing your focus and comfort level.
Step 5. Develop proof points…
These are statistics and anecdotes to support your main talking points. Don’t just explain your points to reporters, but also provide factual evidence or tell a story to reinforce the validity of your main message. Leverage data and show trends.