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Tips for getting most out of interviews

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In a recent blog, I talked about the benefits consultants bring to clients in their media relations role (Why invest in public relations?). It got me thinking how often executives fail to get the most out of an interview.

The basic skills needed in media interviews are easy to learn and apply.  Getting clients to understand them is one of the most valuable contributions a good PR adviser can make.

However one challenge is that sometimes executives think they know better than their PR adviser, and consequently fail to get the full benefit of an interview – and sometimes even turn them into a personal disaster.

It’s not just a question of media training, although this can be of immense help for most executives.  A major difference can be made by PR professionals in setting up interviews and developing approaches, especially if they are specialists in your industry or profession and know the issues.

The caveat is that they need to have good relations with the journalist and that the journalist recognises their professionalism and trusts them.  Otherwise, they might hinder rather than help.

Good PR advisers help interviewees by making sure they:

  • Understand what interests the journalist and their audience – i.e. don’t stick to what interests you and what makes you and your organisation looks good.
  • Know what the journalist is there for. If the interview is at the request of the journalist, why was it sought? If it is the result of a pitch by a PR adviser, what was promised? What was the hook? Good advisers make sure you are fully briefed.
  • Stick to the script and don’t try too hard. In particular, don’t talk about other people’s area of responsibility and don’t talk about things yet to be announced (don’t scoop yourselves, or even worse, scoop the CEO). There’s often a temptation to try to impress the journalist with inside knowledge to get more out of the interview, but this isn’t necessary.
  • Don’t feel the temptation to “make it worth the journalist’s while to be there”. There’s no pressure or responsibility to ensure the journalist gets a story, as long as you haven’t over-promised to get the interview.  Journalists are there because they are interested in what you have to say. It’s their responsibility to get a story if that’s what they are after.
  • Don’t “fill the gap”. If you’ve answered the question and made your point, sit back. Journalists are good at using silence to get people to keep talking and say more than they should.
  • Talk issues not products. This is what journalists (and most other people) are interested in. Avoid self-promotion or product pushing; for instance, making claims that your product is the most advanced on the market, especially if such hyperbole can’t be backed-up. It’s always more persuasive to wait for the journalist to ask the question.
  • Engage with the journalist. Find out about what interests them. Two-way conversation is so much better than a one-way monologue. Encourage their involvement in the conversation. It reflects well on you. Discuss rather than lecture.
  • Keep answers brief. This follows the point above. Don’t talk for more than two or three minutes without encouraging other input or discussion.
  • Avoid top-of-the-head answers that later need to be corrected. One of the hardest things for an executive to say is “I don’t know”, but it’s much better than grabbing figures out of thin air then needing to correct them later. That’s embarrassing. If you don’t know, simply promise you’ll find out and let them know.
  • Don’t express a new view about an issue that’s just occurred to you. If you suddenly get a good idea during an interview, it’s usually best to keep those flashes of inspiration to yourself. Coming out with something you haven’t had time to properly consider is what embarrassing or damaging headlines are made of. Your adviser can always contact the journalist on your behalf afterwards to add a positive afterthought.
  • Avoid referring to recent media coverage, especially quoting other commentators. Journalists want to see you are an authority, not other people. Another no-no is running down other people or organisations.
  • Keep promises to follow up, or send further information. Not doing this can damage future relations.
  • Avoid asking for or thanking journalists for their support. Comments like “this would be as good story for you” or “we look forward to the publicity”; etc should never be made to journalists. It sounds naïve.

If something was said that you regret afterwards, don’t keep it to yourself or contact the journalist without first discussing with your PR adviser to work out the best approach.

Finally, a good rule is that if you don’t want to see it in the paper tomorrow, don’t say it.

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