Set Clear Goals for Yourself
You should never agree to an interview unless you are sure of what you want to convey. Not all press is good press. If you sound like you are uninformed of your message shifts erratically in the interview, you will not help your cause. Before you begin, consider how this article could be helpful to your organization and its ultimate goal. Then, think about whom you want to sway and what language or arguments would best accomplish that.
Use your goals to determine your “message.” Throughout the interview, you want a clear theme to develop. That’s your “message.”
Before the interview, you should prepare possible questions you expect the interviewer to ask and come up with answers to those questions. Then make an effort to sit down, preferably with someone else to help you, and practice your responses. Try to be clear, concise, and interesting. You don’t want to drone on long after the reporter has stopped taking notes. Remember, you should have a clear message you reiterate when appropriate. For example, in preparing for your interview you and another organizer have come up with some possible questions the reporter might ask.
When brainstorming your responses, try to find ways to insert your message. You don’t need to use your catchphrase in every response, but the general message should be conveyed as often as possible. When practicing, try to anticipate difficult questions the reporter might ask you. Find different ways of answering the question and consider possible follow-up questions. When brainstorming responses to tricky questions, think two or three questions ahead to see where the reporter might try to lead you. It sounds like a lot of speculation, but it’s worth it when a little forethought can help you avoid a sticky situation.
In the interview, you want to respond to the reporter, not just answer her questions. That means you want to tailor your remarks in such a way as to lead the reporter back to your key point, your “message.” If you feel that the interviewer’s questions are straying away from the real issue, steer the dialogue back to the topic by saying something like, “That’s an interesting question, but I think the real issue is . . .” or “While that may be one aspect of the problem, the greater issue is . . . .” You don’t want to antagonize or appear to belittle the reporter, but you also don’t want to jeopardize the value of the interview.
The reporter has been trained to think of the interview and the story as theirs. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect her to docilely follow what you think the agenda for the interview should be. There’s a certain tension between any good reporter and her savvy interviewee. It’s your job to get your points across as effectively as possible and still maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s in her interests to fold your perspective of the issue into the story they envision.
You should realize that most interviews will take place without a lot of preparation time for you. You shouldn’t expect to have much advance notice. Therefore, by the time you present yourself as a resource for journalists, you should have already practiced and given considerable thought to your interview techniques. You don’t want to be caught off-guard.
Understand the Reporter’s Needs
Some reporters at a newspaper have a specific beat, or topic area, that they are expected to cover and on which they can be very knowledgeable; others are general assignment reporters, or reporters who are expected to write on a variety of issues that may constantly change. When a reporter first approaches you for an interview, you should determine how much they already knows about the subject. Oftentimes, reporters new to the topic will inform you that they will need more than the usual amount of background information. This presents you with an excellent opportunity to educate them and strengthen your professional relationship. Good information from you now will make it more likely the reporter will rely on you in the future.
If you are working with a reporter new to your issue or organization, it’s a good idea to give them as much comprehensible background information as you think necessary to understand the issue. This doesn’t mean that you should fax them a hundred-page treatise. What you should do is give them one to two pages of background information and let them know about any informative and easy to use websites that are available. A bulleted fact there would be easy to read and quickly convey the key points. Remember that reporters need to prepare for interviews almost as much as you do. They’ll appreciate the extra information and the opportunity to prepare their questions in advance of the interview.
If the reporter is an old hand on the subject, you don’t need to steer them toward any information unless you think they is unaware of something new that is integral to the topic. In this case, you might want to mention the new piece of information and let them know where they can find it. If the reporter asks you about any new information, you should feel free to let her know about the latest data available, for example.
Most interviews take place over the telephone. The reporter may call you a few hours before her article is due and ask to interview you on the subject. They’ll ask you to spell your name slowly and to give them your exact title and the name of your organization. They may also ask you to succinctly describe your organization. You should have a standard description of your organization developed before your first interview.
During the interview, if you falter and inadvertently give incorrect information, make sure to correct yourself as soon as possible. Be as accurate, succinct, and clear as possible, even as you put forward your message. With practice, this will become second nature.
On the Record vs. Off the Record
Anyone who’s ever seen “All the President’s Men” has heard about on the record and off the record. On the record means that your words can be used in a story and attributed to you. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this is how you should be speaking to reporters. It’s rare that you would need to go off the record for any reason. Off the record is a gray area that is often dependent on different reporters. Before you enter this murky area, make sure that you and the reporter understand each other about how the information will be used. For the most part, off the record means that your information cannot be used in the article and the reporter cannot repeat it to anyone using you as the source. What the reporter can do is to ask other people to confirm what they have learned from you, on the record.
For an advocate, you should almost always restrict yourself to things that can be used on the record and attributed to you. If you’re giving reporters information that you don’t want to be linked to, you should realize that this situation could easily backfire on you. If you really feel that you must give this information, make sure to let the reporter know that this information is off the record BEFORE you say a word.
There are other categories for sharing information with reporters. One is called background. Saying something on background means that you don’t necessarily want the information to appear in the story, although it can, depending upon your agreement with the reporter. It cannot, however, be attributed to you. Background information is used to help a reporter frame a story or more accurately understand the context of the issue. The reporter might attribute it to “a source in the activist community” but that should not jeopardize your anonymity. While this information can be useful to the reporter, they will probably still try to have someone confirm the information on the record.
Not for attribution is another method of dispensing information. It can be used in the story, but it should be attributed to a “source.”
If a reporter uses a tape recorder to record the interview, it should be turned off before you provide any information that is anything but off the record. No matter your relationship with the reporter, mistakes can be made.
Remember, reporters aren’t there to protect you from yourself. If you volunteer too much information; forget to say that something is off the record before you say it; misunderstand what the reporter means when they says off the record, on background, or not for attribution, you’re going to be the one who’s hurt. The clearer you are in the beginning, the less damage control you’ll have to do later.
Ending the Interview
Once the interview has come to an end, make sure the reporter has your phone number (if they did not call you first) or other contact information such as e-mail to insure that they can get in touch with you if they has any follow-up questions as they is writing her story. Get their phone number as well, in case you have anything really important to add. If possible, find out when they expects the story to run. Sometimes, even when a reporter has written a story, it does not run due to the newspaper’s space constraints. You never know when a water main might break and drive you from relevance. In closing the interview, make sure to thank them for their time.
If this is the first time you have ever seen your name in print, you probably won’t need to hear this advice; however, it’s important to collect and file your clips. These clips can be used in soliciting other articles on your issues, can be included in press kits, used in testimony, brought to editorial board meetings, sent to funders, and analyzed for future interviews. And besides, they may come in handy for your organization’s 25th (or 50th) anniversary celebration!
Hopefully, this won’t ever be an issue, but everyone is capable of making a mistake or misunderstanding something you might have said. If it’s a really grave error, call the reporter and let them know of the mistake, in a professional, non-confrontational way. If you come on strong, yelling and threatening to get her fired, you can pretty much say goodbye to any good relationship you might have had with them and, perhaps, other members of the press. Reporters are like the rest of us, they like to talk, and reporters have friends and colleagues who are also reporters. Always remember to be calm and polite in pointing out inaccuracies.
If the reporter is unresponsive to your request for correction and the mistake is something huge you have to set the record straight. Talk to the reporter’s editor at the newspaper and let him know calmly, professionally- that this information is inaccurate and damaging. If this article is one of a series that seems to show a bias against your organization by this reporter, you can ask to have another reporter cover your stories in the future. However, this should very rarely occur and you should be aware that it could diminish your coverage. If you are seen as troublesome, you could be bypassed by the media.
It’s important for you to remain self-assured no matter how nervous you may be feeling. The reporter has come to you as an authority. Be confident in your mastery of the material. With the proper preparation, there’s no reason to worry. The more interviews you do, the more comfortable you will be.
Anticipate the Reporter
Before you ever walk into an interview, your message should have already been established. Message development can take a lot of time and thought so it should be done in advance of any media opportunities. You never know when you’ll have the opportunity to talk to a reporter.
When news breaks and you are asked to respond, the first thing you need to do is think of how the news affects your message. How does your organization feel about the governor’s proposal? Is it a real solution to the problem of the uninsured or is it merely a political prop for the governor’s re-election campaign? These are the kinds of questions you may be asked, so be sure to have clear responses that push your perspective.
After you set your message, sit down with a colleague and think through the kinds of questions you’ll be asked. Carefully craft short, interesting responses. Remember, this is your opportunity to have your message heard. Repeat your message relentlessly and find ways to include it in your response to every question. Practice responding to tricky questions and ways you can shift the reporter’s questions to those more in line with your message.
Once you feel comfortable with your message and your ability to stick to it, begin looking at the way you convey your message. It’s important that you look natural on-air so, if possible, try to videotape yourself during these mock interviews. It may seem silly at first, but it will give you the opportunity to critique yourself. If you have done a television interview in the past and have a copy of the tape, make sure to look at that as well. It may give you some ideas about how to improve your posture, gestures, enunciation, and eye contact.
When you are being interviewed, sit up straight and look directly at the interviewer. Resist the urge to look directly into the camera lens. This comes off as overly aggressive and unsettling to the viewer.Try to keep both feet flat on the floor.
Use gestures to make a point. Some people find that holding a pen in an interview helps them with their nerves and gives them something to do with their hands. What you don’t want to do is look stiff or artificial.
Speak clearly, enunciating your words. Most of us tend to speak quickly when we’re nervous. Try to control the speed at which you speak. Because you’ve practiced so much, the content of your speech should be second nature. Relax and concentrate on the interviewer. Remember to use your voice as a tool to convey doubt or approval. Using active words to describe the situation will also help keep the viewer’s attention.
Smile and be engaging throughout the interview, even when you don’t think the camera is on you. The reporter will appreciate this and the audience will pick up on it as well. You don’t want to look and sound dour no matter how much you may dislike the governor’s proposal. You want to appear active and upbeat.
What to Wear
Your clothes are very important in a television interview. This is a visual medium and you want to look as polished and profession as possible. In choosing your wardrobe for television interviews, avoid anything distracting or unflattering on camera. You may love that brightly patterned sweater but the camera doesn’t. It can distract the viewer from listening to your message. Therefore, try to stick to dark, solid clothing. Avoid white and light-colored clothing. Too much jewelry can also be distracting. Sometimes necklaces rub against lavaliere microphones, obscuring your voice. Large, dangly bracelets can also be distracting, especially if you are using your hands to gesture. If possible, remove your glasses or wear contacts as the lens may cause a glare. However, if your vision is so bad that you will be squinting, definitely leave the glasses on!
What to Bring
Always make an effort to bring a press kit. Especially include materials such as your report on the uninsured and a one page executive summary. The producer may ask the graphics department to adapt some of your charts and graphs to be shown on air. You may also want to bring one page of notes with you. While you don’t want to be reading from notes, if you do have specific points you want to make you should feel free to have them handy. The reporter may wish to interview someone in the community who is uninsured. If you have someone who would be willing to speak, bring his or her name and telephone number with you.
Once you have finished, thank the reporter for his or her time. Make sure he or she has your business card for future reference. Find out when the interview will air and ask for a copy of the interview, if possible.
If you cannot get a copy of the video from the station, make sure to record it yourself. Review the tape to see how you might improve for future interviews. You can also use the tape for showing your board of directors.
Despite the amount of preparation involved, television interviews are very important to master. The more time you take perfecting your message and “stage presence,” the more likely you’ll be asked back to do more interviews on health care topics. Many people clamor to do television interviews and then don’t do the preparation necessary. As a result, they end up looking stiff and unnatural. You can always spot the television novices; they stare into the camera like deer in your headlights and barely manage to raise their voice above a whisper.You can bet they won’t be asked back. Producers love to find people who are knowledgeable about their subject are and give good interviews. This is definitely the reputation you want to cultivate.
In radio interviews, you not only need to be knowledgeable about your subject, you also have to be savvy about the format itself. Try to find out as much as possible about any media outlet that approaches you for an interview. Outlet’s another name for a news organization or media group. Research the station, program, and the interviewer. Using the Internet or a media directory such as Burrelle’s or Bacon’s, you should be able to find out who their target audience is, if the program focuses on news, business, or current affairs, and whether or not it has a political slant.
It’s important to have this information because it will help you prepare for the kinds of questions you might be asked. Knowing that you will be interviewed on the most conservative talk show in the state will not only help you decide whether or not you want to do the interview, it can also help you tweak your message and anticipate the hard questions.
The first thing you need to find out is what the format for the interview will be. There is talk radio shows that will let you speak almost without constraint for thirty minutes or an hour. Then there are news shows that will give you five to ten seconds to make your case. Although the preparation for both is largely the same, the short news clip, requires much more discipline.
Sometimes talk radio shows invite other guests to speak during the program. If you will not be the only guest, find out how the producer is arranging the show. Will you be speaking at the same time as the other guest, in a debate format, or will you be alone for part or all of the interview? Some producers will book one speaker for the first thirty minutes of the show and an opposing voice for the second thirty minutes.
You also need to know if you will be taking call-in questions. You can find out by asking the producer who booked you or by looking in one of the media books. Learning about the demographics of the radio station will help you brainstorm likely questions.
Think of this as opposition research. You know that the same message will not work with every audience. Therefore, take the time to research the station’s audience and particularly, this program’s audience. You don’t have to radically alter your goals, but you should see the benefit in taking a different tack with very liberal and very conservative audiences.
Know Your Message
No matter how long you have to speak, you must stay on-message. Otherwise, the interview does you no good and may do you a lot of harm. Before you talk with the reporter, write down what you need to convey as simply and clearly as possible. If you are doing a short news segment, you will have to cut your message to its most basic form.
Don’t be nervous about repeating yourself over and over. In a taped interview, some of your comments may be cut. Therefore, you want to make sure that you convey your message within every response to every question.
Sometimes reporters will try to bait you with a trap questions. Practice deflecting these kinds of questions with phrases like: “While you may have a point, the real issue is . . .” or “I don’t believe that is an issue, what is at stake is . . .” If you’re in doubt about how to deflect unwanted questions, watch televised press conferences or listen to public radio interviews to see how other people handle them.
Just because you know this topic inside and out doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for the interview, especially if this is the first time you have been interviewed by this reporter or been a guest on this program. Run through the questions you may be asked with someone who can critique your responses. Feel free to write up notes and use them during the interview, just don’t rustle your papers.
Try to listen to the program a few times before your interview to get an idea of the kind of questions the interviewer and his or her listeners will ask. Ask someone to run through sample questions with you and get feedback from several people.
Before the interview, make sure you have the directions and the correct day and time of the interview. Sometimes interviews take place at a radio station and sometimes they can be conducted in your office or even over the telephone. Make sure you know who is going where or who is calling whom.
Feel free to ask the reporter how long the interview is scheduled to take and if it will be live or taped. Make sure you know the name of the reporter who will be interviewing you.
Often, the interviewer will request a pre-interview. This may take place a few days or a few minutes before the interview. He or she will take this opportunity to ask you a few questions about the subject. Some pre-interviews are thirty minutes long and some are about 5 seconds! Use the pre-interview to find out what the reporter is looking for from the interview. You can often get a sense of where the reporter would like to take the interview from the pre-interview.
Radio reporters, like print reporters, do not have time to become experts on every subject. They depend on the people they interview to help them better understand the subject. However, do not be lulled into thinking that the reporter will merely ask you soft questions. Reporters are trained to think critically. If there’s a chink in your armor, it’s their job to find and exploit it.
Consider creating a booking sheet to keep track of important interview information. Booking sheets are useful for monitoring interview requests and station/program-specific information.
Here’s a sample booking sheet:
During the Interview
Remember to speak slowly and clearly during the interview, even if the interview is a very short “soundbite.” A soundbite is a clip, usually not more than one to two sentences, that reporters insert into their stories to provide a first-hand or expert perspective. You don’t want to speak so quickly that no one understands the wonderful message you’ve worked so hard to craft.
Here’s a checklist of things to remember for soundbite interviews.. See page 4 for a sample booking sheet. It should also serve as a checklist of important information you should ask producers when scheduling an interview.
If you have a high or squeaky voice, practice speaking slowly and lowly. Likewise, if you are apt to speak in a monotone, try to liven up your speaking style. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to listen and critique your style. You can also record and listen to yourself. Try to be as entertaining and active as possible. Give free reign to your action verbs and use your voice as a tool to convey mood. If you’re happy about recent legislation that would encourage more dentists to accept low income children as patients, let that come through in your voice. Use inflection to vary the rhythm of your sentences. For more pointers, listen to your local NPR affiliate. These broadcasters have mastered the art of holding the audience’s interest through their voices, no matter the subject.
After the Interview
Thank the reporter who interviewed you. Make sure he or she has your business card and one of your press kits, if possible. Ask when the program will air and find out if you can get a copy of the tape for your archives. This is important for many reasons. You can review the cassette to see how you might improve. Pay careful attention to your enunciation and the speed at which you speak. Listen for how well you responded to questions and stayed on message.
The ability to speak well and convey your organization’s message is an important tool. Being able to give good interviews that further your goals, inform the public, and are interesting and newsworthy to journalists takes a lot of preparation. However, the benefits are clear. With practice and preparation, you’ll never say, “um” again.