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Whether you are promoting your own event or report, or responding to a crisis situation, media interviews present a real opportunity. However, there are some potential pitfalls. This section introduces you to the dos and don'ts of media interviews.
Why give a media interview?
Appearing in the media is one of the cheapest ways of getting your message across to the greatest number of people. Many people are understandably nervous about dealing with journalists. Don’t be put off though – the benefits mostly outweigh the threats.
- opportunity for free advertising
- appearing adds credibility
- you can put the record straight
- you can end rumours
- you may be asked to become a regular interviewee or pundit.
- it may backfire
- the message may be distorted
- you may prolong a negative story.
Concentrate on the pros but don't ignore the cons. Although you can never accurately predict the outcome of a media interview, you can greatly improve your chance of success with careful preparation.
These general principles apply to all communications but are particularly worth bearing in mind when conducting a media interview.
- Prepare well but don’t over prepare - preparation is vital in communications. Think about your arguments, your language and your presentation. Have key statistics and evidence to hand. Try not to over prepare otherwise there is a danger your response will sound automated. Try to make your answers sound as natural as possible.
- Be clear - aim for clarity. Language must always be relevant to its audience, concise and accurate. Don’t over-elaborate, deal with facts of which you are unsure, or get lost in the detail.
- Banish jargon - jargon is the enemy of good communications. It is an exclusive language that turns people off and makes you look detached. Think about the jargon you use – and make an effort to explain things in language that everyone understands.
- Be proactive - being on the front foot gives you more control. Try to tackle potentially difficult issues early on to avoid a difficult situation later.
- Tackle negatives firmly - inaccuracies must be challenged as they can become accepted truths. Where things are not working it is important to show determination to tackle them.
- Remember your key messages - think about where and how you can use your key messages. Find examples to articulate your messages and press them home.
- Answer the question - you should try to get your key messages across when you can but not at the expense of answering the question directly. If you ignore the question, you will irritate the interviewer and more importantly the audience.
- Be people focused - put people’s concerns at the centre of what you say, and how you say it.
Remember the following five points before the tape recorders roll:
- be open
- answer questions directly
- engage the interviewer (eye contact).
There are broadly speaking two types of media encounter: the proactive and the reactive.
When a journalist rings you up, the golden rule is not to give an immediate interview. Give yourself time to prepare what you are going to say – and how you are going to say it.
Your aim is to find out as much from the journalist while giving away as little as possible yourself. Make an excuse and get off the telephone as quickly as you can. Promise to phone back – but make sure you keep that promise.
Questions to ask the journalist
- Where are you from?
- What is the story?
- Where did you get the story?
- Who else have you spoken to?
- Who else will you be speaking to?
- What is your deadline?
Questions to ask yourself
- What will my organisation get from this?
- Am I the right person to be doing this?
- Do I know enough?
- Do I have the seniority to promote policy?
- What is my message?
- What does the journalist want out of it?
Should I say ‘no comment’?
In general, the phrase ‘No Comment’ is best avoided.
At best it sounds unhelpful, at worst shady and at times even arrogant. If you decide not to do the interview, be as helpful as possible. Suggest another organisation or another interviewee and offer to help should the journalist need you in future. Or if you can’t do the interview because it clashes with another commitment, offer the journalist an alternative time. Almost always there is some flexibility and running orders can be changed to accommodate people.
Getting the message right
It cannot be stated too often that preparation is the key to a successful interview. Use the time before you phone the journalist back to work out what you want to say. The first rule of talking to a journalist is Never say anything you didn’t intend to say.
No news outlet can cope with a complicated message. There just isn’t the space or time. A long story in a broadcast might run to 500 words. A 30 second piece on radio or television will be about 100. You might have to make the message fit the space available.
Having worked out a clear message, come up with a maximum of three arguments to back up the message. You may not get all three in, but you certainly don’t want to be dragged into any line of argument not included in your preparation.
Work out how you’re going to answer the obvious questions and work out the answers to the questions you hope you won’t be asked.
There are four types of main interview styles:
Of these, the first two are usually the most straightforward to deal with. You are being interviewed because you have first-hand or expert knowledge about a subject and the aim of the interview is to elicit that information. With either interview there may be some tough questions.
The personal interview is designed to get an impression of the personality of the interviewee or to give emotional rather than factual details of the story.
The toughest to handle is, of course, the confrontational. A few well-known journalists have made their names doing this kind of interview, such as Sir Robin Day and Jeremy Paxman. Many budding journalists seek to make their name emulating them. Often they sound merely rude, but you should never rise to the bait. You need to sound impassioned – but never angry or defensive.
Top tip 1: There is sometimes a perception that charities get an easy time when it comes to interviews. Whilst this may once have been the case, as charities have become more professional and better organised, so they are more likely to be treated like any other organisation and not always seen as the ‘good guys’.
Top tip 2: If you’re inexperienced at giving broadcast interviews and don’t feel confident, it is worth letting the researchers on the programme know. They will often go out of their way to make you feel comfortable and relaxed before you go into the interview.
This section includes tips on how to get your point across in media interviews, how to avoid common pitfalls – and how to deal with awkward questions.
When faced with a question you were not expecting or one you're not sure how to answer, deal with that question very briefly and then move on to your main point again. There are several phrases, which are useful for this:
- but what’s really important ...
- but just let me say ...
- to return to my original point ...
- you must remember ...
The crucial thing is to move back to your original point, otherwise you lose control and allow the journalist to dictate the agenda.
Watch out for common pitfalls when doing a media interview.
- Having words put in your mouth - if a journalist says “Don’t you think that this is the worst thing that could happen?” and you agree, it will be written as though you actually said it yourself. Be clear about what you want to say.
- Rebuttal - if a question has a built-in premise with which you do not agree then you must disagree with it. For example, if the interviewer says “So you threw caution to the wind and went ahead with this exciting new project?” you should make it plain you only did it after careful consideration.
- Negatives - in broadcast interviews you should try not to repeat a negative statement with which you disagree. “So, these half-yearly figures are pretty disastrous?" Don’t say “I don’t think they’re pretty disastrous”. A simple “No”, and the rest of the answer has more impact.
- Keep it short and simple - don’t talk for too long. There is always a tendency, especially in print interviews, to keep talking as your words will be edited. Give your message and examples clearly and then end the interview. Never move into unprepared territory.
Remember that the journalist is not attacking you personally, no matter how it seems. They’re only doing their job. Do not get angry as it gives the impression of being out of control. You need to be the voice of reason at all times. Also, remember not to laugh inappropriately – it may lead to embarrassment when you hear it played back.
Handling negative and difficult media interviews
The key to all good interview technique is control. This is gained both in the interview itself and beforehand. Control comes with preparation, knowing the medium, language and interview technique.
Before the interview
- Think clearly about what you want to get out of the situation and how you want to be perceived (solution focused, empathetic, acknowledging errors, collaborative).
- Pre-empt difficult issues and challenging questions.
- Have three points you wish to get across and be determined to make them even if the questions don’t make it easy.
- Get as much information about the interview and subject matter as you can in advance.
- Make a list of questions that you think the journalist is likely to ask and practice the answers.
- Think how your interview will be used (how long is it, what time is it going out, what type of programme is it?)
- Think about what the media wants out of the interview.
- Pay no attention to the microphone – concentrate on the interviewer, make eye contact and treat it like a normal conversation.
- Practice - the more you can practice answering questions and getting your points across the better. Often being interviewed by your colleagues is actually tougher than the interview itself.
During the interview
- Be clear and concise, and do not give answers that are too long.
- Use real language that everyone understands and avoid jargon.
- Paint a picture when you talk (eg "three out of ten people" rather than "34%").
- Use action words like committed, determined, focused, groundbreaking, unique, special.
- Avoid negatives, using a passive voice and elaborate phrases.
- Start well by giving an overview that emphasises your key message – and end on this too.
- Give it the personal touch by taking responsibility and showing that you are accessible.
Fielding negative questions
- As a rule, broaden the context for negative issues (‘this is an issue that affects every community’) – it puts the negative in perspective.
- If there is a negative you can’t avoid, mention it first – it is honest and takes the heat out of a situation.
- If the interview moves into difficult or unknown territory use the bridging technique (‘what’s really important here is…’ ‘to return to my original point..’) - it provides a bridge back to your own issue.
- If there is a negative assertion, don’t repeat it – but nail it (‘That’s not the case’) and move onto your own point.
- Stress positive facts about your work, the area or the city – it creates a positive context.
- Be robust under pressure – even if it is a difficult issue take a line and stick to it.
- In most cases empathy with the public will help strengthen your case.
- Explain and illustrate the action you are taking at every opportunity – it shows you as pro-active and problem solving and puts you in the driving seat.
- Don’t get drawn into criticising other organisations – it may look like you are buck passing. “We’ve all got to work together on this” is a good way to move the interview forward.
- Remember you are the expert – relax and treat the interview as an opportunity, not a threat.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it. If it’s not your remit, say so and suggest who else might know. Importantly, don’t waffle and tie yourselves in knots by trying to come up with a vague answer to something you don’t know.
TV and radio interviews
Radio and TV interviews can sometimes feel daunting. Here we offer some key tips for making the most of broadcast opportunities as well advice on how to handle tricky questions and remain calm under pressure. We'll start by looking at the five types of broadcast interviews.
The live interview
The live interview is the one sure way you have of knowing you will not be misquoted. Although everyone worries about drying up when live on air, in practice it rarely happens. Think about interviews you have heard and you will struggle to recall anyone who has completely lost the thread. The adrenaline keeps you going. If you’re inexperienced or particularly nervous, let the interviewer know. They will help you as they want the interview to run smoothly as much as you do.
The recorded interview
The recorded interview has the obvious advantage that if you’re not happy with any or all of it, you can do it again – but sparingly. The disadvantage is that you can become too reliant on re-recording mistakes and so do a sloppy, ill thought out interview.
Top tip: Although in theory you can record interviews again if you make mistakes, there is no guarantee that the editor will use the ‘second take.’ So it’s always better to get it right the first time round.
Many programmes use a panel discussion to bring out all the arguments surrounding a story. You should always find out who else is going to be involved and decide if you want to be on a panel with them. If you agree, then work out what their points of view are likely to be and how you will deal with them. The principle of deciding on your message and sticking to it still holds good. When the other participants are speaking you must listen so that you can make both an intelligent reply. Make sure the recording does not show you slouching, foot tapping or yawning!
The phone-in where you are responding to listeners' questions
This is an excellent opportunity for getting your message across because you will have at least 30 minutes to an hour. It also allows you to demonstrate that you’re ‘in-tune’ with listeners. You must prepare in the same way as for an ordinary interview by thinking of good examples, checking your language and especially working out which questions are most likely to be asked and how you can deal with the trickiest questions.
Do not get drawn into long conversations about people’s personal problems. They are very boring for other listeners and there is often little you can do without a great deal more information. Always suggest that the caller gives their name to the programme’s telephone operator so that you can call back after the programme. In this instance, make sure you do call back.
Down the line
This is a tricky situation for the inexperienced. On TV it means that you are in a separate studio from the interviewer, facing nothing but a studio camera. The trick is to talk into the camera – as if it were a real person – and try not to be put off by the studio paraphernalia. If you ‘engage’ the camera, look only at it, you will come over well. If you look around the studio, or down at your feet, you will have lost the audience. On radio it is more natural – just like holding a telephone conversation.
Top tips for TV interviews
When you are going on television, you are giving a message not only by what you say, but also in how you look. Researchers have shown that in a TV interview:
- 70% of the message is carried by how you look
- 20% is carried by how you say it
- 10% is carried by what you say.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what you say. The minute what you say is off-key, the focus shifts away from how you look and your delivery - and moves firmly on to what you are saying.
What should I wear?
In dressing for television, it is very important that you consolidate your message with the way you look. You need to be dressed in your professional uniform. This adds credibility to your role as a spokesperson and also means your audience is not distracted. They should be listening to you, not noticing your clothes.
- wear dark clothes that fit and are comfortable (it boosts confidence)
- dark colours (navy blue, charcoal and grey) carry more authority than light colours
- avoid black – it drains colour from the face and television loses details like lapels and buttons
- avoid white – it glares, but cream is fine
- avoid very bright colours like shocking pink or red as they can “bleed” onto the screen
- avoid busy patterns on ties and blouses
- avoid checks or herring-bone patterns as they “strobe” on screen
- brush your hair
- check your appearance – it’s not vanity, just common sense.
TV interviews checklist:
- Do keep eye contact with your interviewer and do not move your eyes around as this makes you look shifty.
- Do not worry about using your hands. Much of it will almost always be out of shot and anyway it looks natural. However, don’t cross your arms. It makes you look on the defensive. Always maintain an open posture.
- Do not refer to notes. You have to look up and down which makes you look uncertain about your facts.
- Smile if appropriate. It takes an effort, but turns a boring looking person into a warm human being. If, however, you are talking about redundancies, illnesses or other personal tragedies, then a smile is quite wrong.
Top tips for radio interviews
- Do maintain eye contact with the interviewer. It will give you many more clues as to how the interview is going – such as whether you are being boring or whether the interview is about to end. It also helps you sound as though you are talking to a real person.
- Do not worry about ‘umming and erring’. It just sounds like a real person talking and in fact, few listeners ever notice it.
- Do not take notes into the interview with you. They rustle and often make you sound stilted.
See also giving radio interviews - tips from a charity press team manager.
Have your say
What are your top tips for giving a good media interview? Add comments here or have your say on the communications and media forum.