Part 3 - Interview: Print, Radio, and Television
Being interviewed by reporters is one of the most difficult tasks facing a spokesperson. Some spokespersons are wary enough of this encounter to take extraordinary measures to avoid reporters completely. That is an unfortunate situation. Much has been written about the reporter/spokesperson relationship, usually in an effort to assign blame, but occasionally to resolve differences where they exist. This book will do neither.
Consider every interview with a reporter as an opportunity to reach a broad media or print audience with your message. A case can be made for many reporter interviews being your public responsibility as a spokesperson (during natural disasters, major accidents, or public hearings). In any case, if you are going to be interviewed, you may need assistance in preparing for the interview, and perhaps even in conducting yourself during the interview.
There are two basic types of interviews. The first is a spontaneous interview Ė one with little or no advance warning. The other is the scheduled interview that is planned in advance.
The spontaneous interview usually occurs immediately following a speech you may have given, at the site of a newsworthy event of some sort, or via the telephone. The best preparation for this type of interview is an established program of good press relations, preferably one cultivated over a long period of time (unfortunately beyond the scope of this book). However, there are a couple of other things you can do to prepare before the interview begins.
Most people are intimidated by reporters armed with cameras and microphones. Because of this fear, they feel compelled to satisfy the reporterís every question the moment the microphone is poked in their faces. Whamo! The interview is underway!
Donít let yourself be railroaded. Reporters have no god-given right to force an instant interview with you. Itís perfectly permissible for you to say, ďIíd be delighted to answer your questions, but first I have an important call to make,Ē or ďbut first I need to find a rest room.Ē Donít lie; donít deceive the reporter Ė but if you have pressing matters to tend to, take care of them. Get those items cleared up; then youíll be free to concentrate on the interview.
Assuming youíve completed the immediate tasks and have returned to accommodate the reporter, thereís another important step to take. Before granting the interview, ask the reporter precisely what information he or she is seeking. Based on their needs, determine whether or not that information lies within your area of expertise and responsibility. If it does not, steer the reporter to the proper source of information on the matter.
If it is within your area, youíll probably be off and running. Specific techniques for use while you are being interviewed are provided in the next three chapters.
The second basic type of interview is the one in which you have advance notice, whether that notice is hours or days. In either case, preparation is in order. During the initial contact determine, as you did for the spontaneous interview, precisely what the reporter wants to know. This may save you both a lot of time. If you are not the proper person to be interviewed on this subject, be helpful in steering the reporter to the right person in your organization.
Assuming you are the right person, continue to glean as much information as possible about what the reporter is trying to accomplish. The more you know, the better you can prepare. You may also uncover any strong bias the reporter may have regarding the topic to be discussed.
Once you are satisfied that you understand what the reporter is looking for, itís time to set up a time and place for the interview. This could be dictated by studio programming requirements, or by an important event of some variety. Be sensitive to the reporterís need to photograph important equipment, new buildings, you, or other visuals to accompany and enliven the story. Be as cooperative as you possibly can be. Be certain to schedule adequate time for the interview; cutting an interview short or having to schedule a follow up will more than likely frustrate both you and the reporter. With all the logistics worked out, itís time personally to prepare yourself.
Interviews can be rehearsed, although the process isnít easy. All veteran reporters have well-honed questioning techniques that are difficult for you to simulate. You can, however, follow the procedures established in Chapter 11 for preparing yourself for Q & A sessions. In following those procedures, generate a list of questions, which you anticipate may be asked. Then research a fact base you can draw from when you answer the interview questions. When that is done, itís time to practice. Just as before, keep the audience in mind.
Radio and television shows have specific audiences to focus on while you are practicing. For the print media, try considering the audience to be the reporter interviewing you Ė as everything is filtered through him/her. Ask a friend or colleague to fire realistic, tough questions at you. Record your responses, preferably on videotape equipment, then play them back, and critique your answers. Repeating this process with different questioners will produce a surprising number of different versions of questions. Once youíve acquired a comfortable spoken command of the facts, and feel reasonably confident of your ability to put them to work, youíre ready for the interview itself.
If youíre in a position where you are interviewed periodically by local reporters, itís a good idea to become familiar with their individual styles and techniques. Some of this insight can be gathered during your pre-interview conversation.
Most effective spokespersons make it a practice to watch the local evening news as often as possible. A different channel each night is a good way to get an overview. By using this technique, you get a constant sampling of different reporters in action. Fortification like this will make your first encounter less intimidating, because youíll have watched the interviewer beforehand.
Likewise, reading the columns of whichever newspaper reporters specialize in your field is a must. If your local paper doesnít have a specialist, then a general familiarity with the paperís editorial policies and positions may be useful. If you know in advance that a specific reporter will be interviewing you, then be certain to get a head start by looking for that reporterís work in the paper Ė even if you have to go back a week or two to read dated newspapers.
When you accept an invitation to be interviewed on a radio show, it pays to listen to the same show for several days immediately preceding your appearance. This will give you valuable insight on how the particular host conducts interviews Ė and how audience questions are handled. The call-in questions will help you better understand what type of audience listens to this particular show.
Most interviews, be they print, radio, or television, usually involve some pre-interview chitchat consisting of general small talk. This serves to break the ice and helps set the interviewee at ease. This is an ideal time for you to make a favorable comment about a story you read, saw, or heard that this particular reporter covered. Reporters are people, and they respond to positive stroking. Such a well-placed compliment could get you off and running on the right foot.
A word of caution. Key spokespersons should be enrolled in a continuing program designed to keep their communication skills sharp. The more practice you get, it follows that the better youíll be. Donít wait until the crisis hits to identify and prepare you as a spokesperson. Being trained and ready for the unexpected will increase your effectiveness in handling routine encounters with the media.