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Preparing Executives for Media Interviews

By TJ Walker

Achieving successful outcomes from media interviews depends on five key factors: understanding and accepting the media's interviewing rules; preparing key messages; preparing quotes and sound bites; presenting professionally; and staying on message.

This article analyzes how to best prepare for media interviews. Part Two will cover the techniques of presenting professionally and answering interview questions.

Media's Interviewing Rules

The first thing to understand about media interviews is simple: YOU CAN'T CONTROL THE MEDIa.
You can't control the interview process.
You can't control the questions interviewers ask.
You can't control interviewer bias.
You can't control the headline or story lead.
You can't control the story angle or story line.
You can't control story contents.
You can't control the story context.
You can't control the length or depth of the story.
You can't control the editing process.
You can't control how you are depicted.
And you certainly can't get the right to approve the story in advance.

While you can't control the interview, you can control your message.

You have 100% control over what comes out of your mouth. And, ultimately, that gives you substantial influence over the story's content and the outcome of the interview.

Preparing for the Interview

Entering an interview without preparation invites disaster.

When a reporter requests an interview, it's important to determine the reason for the reporter's request. Often the reporter will tell you upon making the request. "I'm working on a story about rising automobile insurance rates." If they don't, it's not out of line for you or your intermediary to ask: Why do you want to interview me? What's the story you're working on? What are you expecting to get from the interview?

In scheduling the interview, you or your intermediary should suggest an interview date/time that gives you adequate time to prepare for the interview. In crisis situations, that may be hours. For feature articles, it may be days.

To prepare for a media interview, many executives first brainstorm a list of questions they expect to be asked. Wrong!

The first and most important preparation step is to generate a list of your own key message points for the interview — the key messages that you want the reporter to include in the story and the audience to take away from the story. A message point is any positive, important or interesting thing about the subject.

Preparation can take anywhere from ten or fifteen minutes to a full day — depending on the scope of the interview, the importance of the news organization, the complexity of the subject and its level of controversy, and your familiarity with the subject.

Preparation starts by writing down every possible point you could make on the subject of the interview. Just as you would in any other type of free-wheeling brainstorming session, include every possible point without making any initial judgments about its importance. Just list every pertinent message point. It's always helpful to include colleagues in this process; they may come up with message points that have escaped you. Ideally, this brainstorming process will generate 20 to 100 possible message points.

Next, you want to distill these message points into a few key messages. A "few" in this case means absolutely no more than three. (Funny how things always seem to work best in threes.) If you go into a media interview with the goal of trying to communicate more than three main message points, chances are you will fail. Have three clear, easy-to-understand points for your next media encounter and you will be primed for success.

To select and hone your three messages, you can use whatever editing system is comfortable for you. List all the message points in rank order of importance. Or group the key points into categories. Or assign each message point into one of three categories: Essential; important; unimportant. Or sort them by their newsworthiness.

At some point in the process, you must connect the message points. This is the point at which you are editing the only thing you can control — what comes out of your mouth. Above all, the three messages must be positive. No negativity. They must be concise. You should be able to state each of these three message points in less than thirty seconds. If it takes you longer than that, then you really haven't distilled your message. They must be easy to understand. No complexity. No hard to follow rationale.They must be clear. Simple, straight-forward language and unambiguous statements. Ideally, the messages will resonate emotionally with the audience.

Packaging Quotes and Sound Bites

Reporters need quotes and sound bites for their stories. They are essential building blocks to add interest, credibility and emotion.

You should never go into an interview without knowing in advance the exact and precise quotes you want to see in tomorrow's newspaper or on tonight's newscast.

Quotes and sound bites are those turns of phrase that make people sit up and take notice. They turn a message point into something that sticks in the memory. Of all the elements in the PR magician's black bag of tricks, none is more mysterious than crafting the sound bite or quote.

The world seems to be divided into two groups: those who instinctively know how to turn any abstract message point into a sound bite and those who don't. For those who know, it's as easy as breathing or laughing. People who are good at it have lots of interview requests — and are usually treated gently by interviewers. As a result, they have myriad opportunities to deliver their messages through the media to large audiences.

For those who don't know how to make something quotable, the process is as mysterious as trying to speak in tongues. These people are logical, rational, linear thinkers — often with engineering or financial backgrounds — who focus almost entirely on facts. They rarely utter a memorable positive quote.

How do you turn a message into a memorable quote? By using one or more of the following elements:
  1. Analogy: It's like a _____. It's like when _____. It's the next _______.
  2. Bold action words
  3. Emotion
  4. Humor
  5. Pop culture references
  6. ClichÈs (with a twist)
  7. Rhetorical questions
  8. Oppositional quotes
So instead of saying: "We had a good year," you might say "We hit it out of the park more often this year than Barry Bonds" or "We had a better year than the Red Sox."

Preparing for Hard Questions

The average politician or business executive prepares for a media interview or press conference by reviewing with staff all the possible questions reporters might ask — from the obvious to the arcane.

Such preparation is only marginally useful. Focusing preparation time on questions puts you in a reactive or defensive position, yielding power to the interviewer.

The reality is you can never know all the questions that will be asked, because you can't control the interviewers or their questions. But you do know the obvious questions and the obvious topics — especially if you've had the reporter tell you the purpose of the interview and if you've done some background research about the reporter's interests, attitudes and "slant" on the subject matter by reviewing recent articles or interviews and by talking with other interviewees.

Therefore, it's best to focus your preparation and rehearsal time on your key messages and sound bites. You want to enter the interview with a well thought out message and clear answers to the fundamental questions you expect to be asked.

To make best use of your preparation time, limit question speculation to the half dozen or so obvious questions the reporter is likely to ask during the interview. Then you should add the two or three questions you think would be hardest for you to answer — and develop simple, direct, clear answers with usable sound bites to each of those questions, within the framework of your key messages.

Summary and Conclusion

While you can't control the media, you have 100% control over your basic message and the answers you give. By entering a media interview with no more than three key messages, a handful of sound bites, and clear answers to the two or three most difficult questions, you can be successful in most every interview. While you can't control the interview, you can in the end pretty much control the message that gets out.

About the author:

T.J. Walker is the founder of Media Training Worldwide who specializes in helping senior officers of public corporations become better communicators. He has trained top executives with Charles Schwab, EMC, Ernst and Young, Goldman Sachs, RLI Corp., Summit Technology, and many other companies and government agencies. Walker is also the author of "Media Training A-Z".

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