How To Survive the Media Interview – Talking With Reporters

Given the rapidly failing state of the news media business in North America and Europe it is becoming ever more important that people be very careful when agreeing to do a media interview.

Ethical and professional standards have slipped badly in the last several years, particularly in television news and even more so in local television news. So much emphasis is put on shaping the story before any interviewing, or indeed any other journalism is done, that distortions are inevitable. That coupled with a shrinking journalistic job market means that unprincipled and inexperienced reporters will do anything to make their stories more interesting, not for the public, but for their bosses.

There are so many horror stories of people agreeing to do print, radio,  or TV interviews in good faith only to find their words ignored, twisted, or changed in the final product that it would make a good story in its own right, except no one would report it properly.

News outlets that are confronted by outraged organisations that feel unfairly treated now tend to fall back to the very letter or the meaning of journalistic accuracy. If they can demonstrate that you did indeed say the words quoted, or say words that were close enough to what the news outlet believed you said, then they will congratulate themselves on being accurate and get rid of you and your complaint speedily.

The old notions of Fairness and Balance in news reporting are gone from much of the journalistic landscape.

So what to do if you are asked for an interview?

The first thing I tell clients who ask for help on this is to remind them that they have an absolute right to say no to a reporter. There is nothing in law or society that can compel you to undergo an interview.

Understand this –

  • The public Does Not have a right to Know anything from a private citizen or company.

  • There is no Need to Know

Now, having said that there are still many good reasons why you would want to go through an interview, especially if it has a chance of promoting your organization or product. It is also vital during a Media Crisis that you put yourself forward and get your side out. But don’t do it unless you have a pre-prepared Media Crisis Plan and some good professional backing.

Okay, the reporter from Podunk Local TV News has asked for an interview; what do you do?

If you have any doubt or uncertainty, take the details and promise to call back while you think about. Reporters are very good about being persistent and most would make terrific telemarketers selling dodgy timeshares but they need you more than you need them.

When you negotiate with the reporter make it very clear that you both understand what the interview will be about and stand firm on only discussing that aspect of things.

Okay, you’ve agreed and there is a time and place. Since this is a television interview be prepared for a lot of technical screwing around, retakes, cover shots, reverse angles, etc and etc. Television means technology and very intrusive technology at that. Be prepared to have a lot of your time wasted.

Stick to your central message, the reason why the interview is being done in the first place. The reporter may well want to dive off into other subject areas but you do not have to follow. There is nothing wrong with saying, “That’s not why I am here today”, “I cannot discuss that.” Sure the reporter may try to play lines like that in a sinister way through the editing process but it is a very hard thing to pull off convincingly, especially if you and your organization has a Communications Strategy Plan built around a clear message that you repeatedly get out in front of other media.

In the same manner don’t be afraid of saying, “I have no idea whatsoever”

Be aware that very little of what you say will end up on air. It is not uncommon for a reporter to used just :08 seconds from a 12 minute interview. I myself have used as little as two or three seconds from a 15 minute interview when producing news reports.

Print reporters are different and they will want the most mundane and specific things from you like your age, number of kids, and every conceivable detail about your message or product. You can say no whenever you want to anything they ask.

Radio can be a real joy. It is a mix of print and television reportage.

Unless you are dealing with the highly trained radio journalists of the giants of the business, CBC, NPR, BBC, ABC Australia etc, you will likely have all sorts of opportunity to say exactly what you want the way you want it. That’s because, apart from the giants, radio is a wasteland of inexperienced and even ignorant reporters. Many are focused on breaking into television and have little inclination to learn the techniques of proper interviewing. You can just romp all over reporters like that and they won’t even notice.

But please don’t do any of this without professional media training. If you don’t have a Communications Director to train you then do some leg work of your own and find a local Media Training company. In just a couple of days they can prepare you to handle anything.

And please, for the love of the gods of the multiverse, don’t talk to reporters unless you have a clear and concise Media Communications Strategy, preferably with an attached Media Crisis Plan.

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