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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.
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.
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.
Remember the following five points before the tape recorders roll:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
See also giving radio interviews - tips from a charity press team manager.
What are your top tips for giving a good media interview? Add comments here or have your say on the communications and media forum.
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