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Interviewing Dos & Don'ts

You've lined up an interview, so now what? Learn to look and sound your best on camera, on the radio and in print with this crash course in media training.

You've written a compelling release, determined the ideal time to issue the news, selected the optimum distribution package through your newswire service provider and developed a list of key media targets. Chances are now strong that reporters will respond, and when they do, they'll want to talk.

This is a good thing. The pinnacle of PR. Unfortunately for some of you, though, media interviews are an anxiety-laden proposition that can limit your ability to effectively articulate the story you're so eager to tell.

If you're one of these people, fear not. There are several techniques you can employ prior to and during an interview that can help smooth the process and create an atmosphere of comfort and control.

What to Expect
The majority of all media interviews are conducted over the phone. The reason is simple. Most reporters are writing on deadline, and the phone provides a simple and efficient way to make contact and gather information. There may be instances when a reporter requests a face-to-face meeting or, given today's digital age, an e-mail exchange. But for the most part, the phone is the communication medium of choice.

When speaking to a reporter over the phone, there are a few specific techniques you should consider. First, if at all possible, use a landline. Poor cell phone connections can be frustrating and may result in misquotes. Second, try standing during the call. It may seem like an odd thing to do, but standing will put you in a more aggressive posture and can even help you focus your thoughts. Lastly, and most important, limit all outside distractions. Turn away from your monitor, close out of e-mail, shut down your PDA, and lock your door. Background noise (literal and figurative) can disrupt your thought process and potentially cause you to misstate a response.

Whether on the phone, in person or via e-mail, the following tips should be considered each and every time you're presented with an interview opportunity. Each can help mean the difference between an article that showcases you and your company as a powerful force in your industry and a story that fails to connect with your audience, or worse, paints your company in a bad light.

To prepare for the interview:

  • Research the reporter and the publication.
    Does this reporter usually write favorable, balanced pieces, or adopt a more scandal-seeking approach? Does the publication look for a personal (human interest) or factual style of reporting? Does the publication publish long, investigative features or shorter, newsy pieces? The answers to these questions will determine what sort of preparation you need to do. A basic online search should yield a few past articles from a particular reporter, but to really investigate a reporter's background and writing style, it may be necessary to subscribe to an online media database.
  • Prepare at least three key points you want to get across.
    What are the most important facts or ideas you want to communicate during the interview? Your messages should pertain to the specific topic at hand but also extend to your company as a whole. Write out the information, practice talking about it, and have the notes handy when you speak to the reporter.
  • Anticipate tough questions.
    No matter the style of the reporter, it's always wise to prepare for tough questions. It's likely they won't be asked, but it's best to be ready for worst-case scenarios. Perhaps tough questions relate to the company's past actions or inactions, or its position in the market with respect to its competitors. Think about the issues as if you were outside the company looking in, then prepare some answers in advance. If you're asked a difficult question during the interview, avoid repeating the negative angle in your response. It'll validate the pessimism. Use positive words and phrases as much as possible.
  • Expertly answer friendly questions.
    Believe it or not, responding to favorable questions also requires forethought. While you may know exactly what you want to say, the way in which you say it is very important. Often, interviewees get overanxious and try to include too much information. This can cause your important messages to get overshadowed or lost completely. Take a breath before answering, and be sure to refer to your notes. Also, when asked something positive, try to rephrase the question in your response. As explained above, linking your answer to the question endorses the reporter's angle. In this case, that's a good thing.

During the interview:

  • Think about sound bites and anecdotes.
    Try to phrase answers in easily quotable sentences. Avoid being overly wordy or going off on tangents. Also, sprinkle in a few anecdotes when possible, as these are good for adding color. In both cases, write out three or four sound bites so you're ready to quickly insert them into the conversation. But don't sound as if you're reading them!
  • Avoid extensive promotion.
    While it's tempting, control the urge to be too salesy--present the facts without hyperbole or marketing jargon. Reporters are generally sensitive to hype, and it could impact their coverage of your company.
  • Be cordial and complimentary.
    Even if some of the questions are harsh, maintain a calm demeanor. Do not, under any circumstances, threaten the reporter or walk away from the interview. Be diplomatic. A helpful technique when confronted with a challenging question is to compliment the reporter. Say, "That's a great question, and..." In doing so, you may disarm the reporter a bit, and it'll also provide a few extra seconds for you to devise a response.
  • Avoid "off the record" comments.
    The basic rule of thumb for all interviews is nothing is off the record. Even if a reporter gives you assurances of confidentiality, there's no signed contract holding the reporter to his or her word. While the majority of reporters will honor off-the-record comments, it's best to steer clear of such situations.
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Mark Nowlan is senior vice president of marketing & communications at PR Newswire. Nowlan is a frequent lecturer on media relations, strategic communications and crisis communications at industry conferences around the country. Get more information about PR Newswire and public relations with their PR Toolkit for small businesses.

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