Part 3 - Interview: Print, Radio, and Television
In this chapter, we will focus principally on handling the newspaper interview. Although newspapers and magazines have much in common, the newspaper reporter is usually under greater time pressure. Although the format of magazine interviews isn’t much different, that one big difference in deadlines can generate much more severe pressure. Newspaper reporters are constantly scrambling to get their stories together; they have little time and less patience for inefficiency.
The magazine reporter also works under rigid deadlines, but they occur less frequently. As a consequence, the magazine reporter may seem less frantic, more leisurely in his/her approach. This approach may lead to more thorough stories; it may also create a need for additional contact between you and the reporter – which can improve the chances that you will get your story told the way you feel it should be.
There are times when, as a condition of granting an interview, you may ask to see the proposed story prior to publication. Most newspaper reporters will consider this as a potential form of censorship, and will balk. Magazine feature writers may agree to this condition more readily as a way to insure accuracy and thoroughness. But reviewing a magazine feature can be a time-consuming process. If you agree to review a story, set strict time limits on it, and get the material back to its author quickly.
Asking for clearance should be done sparingly. Most newspaper reporters will simply bypass your side of the story altogether, or will locate another source more willing to cooperate on their terms. A good reporter’s instinct will tell him/her that you have something to hide if you insist on rigid previewing conditions.
It’s a good idea, however, to offer your service if the reporter finds key information missing while writing the story, or to simply check facts or technical data. Be cooperative; give the reporter a number to call where you can be reached for follow up.
Many spokespersons prefer to be interviewed in their offices. This way they are on their home turf, comfortable with familiar surroundings. If your office is normally a bit cluttered and busy with lots of paperwork, reports, or books – then leave it that way. Don’t scurry about cleaning up prior to the reporter’s arrival; the reporter may wonder what you do all day. It is a good idea, however, to remove any confidential or sensitive material from view.
Interruptions should be held to a minimum during an interview. Have your calls held and any unscheduled visitors booked for later appointments. Give the reporter your undivided attention. Having coffee or soda available is a good way to break the ice and create a relaxed environment.
Being interviewed in your office offers two other important advantages. First, you have access to your files to come up with facts that might not be on the tip of your tongue. Second, you can call a colleague either into the interview room or by phone to provide additional information.
When the reporter arrives, you can usually expect a few moments of small talk. This is a good time for you to get comfortable with the person and add to your knowledge about him/her.
It’s important to pinpoint how much experience and knowledge the reporter has in your field. This will tell you how detailed or how basic your information needs to be to insure understanding. You may also uncover any strong bias the reporter may harbor that may affect the way you decide to share information. As a rule, well-informed reporters make for more rewarding and productive interviews. Rookies may require substantial background information, and repeated clarification.
It’s important to commence the interview on friendly terms. Be warm and personable. This is an ideal time to mention how much you enjoyed or were interested in a recent story he/she covered. Be sincere, but don’t overdo the praise.
The reporter has the last word. It’s okay to recognize a healthy difference of opinion. You will be the loser if you let the interview deteriorate into a hostile argument. You must tell your story the best way you can – and rely upon the reporter’s (and the newspaper’s) professionalism to provide truthful, fair coverage. No matter what you tell reporters, remember that they, not you, will write the ultimate story.
Direct questions deserve equally direct and forthright answers. Don’t beat around the bush. Tell it like it is; if you don’t know, then say so openly, but take it upon yourself to locate the answer, and get back to the reporter as soon as possible.
Don’t consider each question an opportunity to make a speech. Keep your answers brief. If the reporter wants to know more, he/she will ask.
The truth has an unnerving way of surfacing. A seemingly insignificant little “fib” that seems to get you out of a tight spot today, may come back to haunt you tomorrow. Reporters sometimes ask questions they already have answers for – to check your honesty. This type of questioning is used extensively on the television show, “60 Minutes.”
Telling the truth is the best policy. Although it could be somewhat painful today, in the long run it will pay handsome dividends.
When human safety or well-being is involved, always address those considerations first in your answer. Don’t bemoan the millions of dollars in damages to your plant caused by the recent fire. Instead, begin by stating your concern for the two persons who received minor injuries; state clearly and feelingly how thankful you are that nobody was seriously injured or killed.
Exaggerations will put reporters on guard immediately. “Ballpark” figures and intelligent estimates are acceptable, as long as they are identified as such. But make-believe numbers, and scenarios intended to frighten the public are taboo. Spokespersons who exaggerate the truth soon lose their credibility.
There is no such thing as “off the record.” If you don’t want something reported, don’t say it.
There is a substantial difference between saying something off the record and providing background information. Provide as much background data as you deem appropriate, but expect that everything may be used by the reporter.
The only exception with respect to speaking “off the record” is the case in which you’re dealing with a senior reporter with whom you’ve cultivated a solid relationship based on trust and respect. As reporters (especially broadcast reporters) seem to move about from one market to another in an attempt to move up professionally, spokespersons constantly seem to be breaking in new ones.
Do not answer questions you don’t understand. Ask the reporter to clarify the question.
Also, as you respond, watch for nonverbal clues that tell you whether the reporter understands your answer. If you detect a puzzled look or hesitant note-taking, ask the reporter if you answer was clear. Ask if you can elaborate on any specific points. Keep in mind that the reporter is making notes that will be translated later into complete copy. As a result, there is substantial opportunity for error and misunderstanding.
Some reporters prefer to use tape recorders to insure accuracy – and to reduce the amount of note-taking necessary. This practice is quite common; don’t let it intimidate you. Try to forget that the device is present.
You may even wish to record the interview yourself. Such a tape may be a valuable tool for you to play back and critique yourself with later. Or if you’re dealing with a sloppy or biased reporter who constantly seems to misquote you, the recording may prove useful as evidence of what you actually said.
When a reporter turns off his/her recording device, or puts away his/her pencil and closes the notebook, interviewees have a tendency to let down their psychological guard. The reporter then engages in “harmless” small talk – that somehow weaves its way back to the issue at hand. Before you know it, you’re saying things you never intended to mention. Be on your alert from the time the interviewer arrives until his/her departure.
When follow up is necessary, be prompt. Get back to the reporter as soon as possible; be sensitive to his/her need to make deadlines. Reporters will respect your professionalism and effort – and you will have taken a giant stride toward developing a healthy personal relationship with the press.
Be certain to read the reporter’s story when it appears. This will help you grow as a spokesperson; you will better understand the process by which what you say is transmitted to the public via another person’s words and perceptions. It will also allow you to learn about the particular reporter’s style (and biases, if any).
Should you feel very strongly positive about the report, you may wish to drop a note to the reporter commending him/her for the fine article. If you have a strong negative reaction, you may want to point out factual errors that may exist. Whatever letter you decide to write, remember to be as honest and fair in your appraisal as you hope the reporter will be with his/her next story.