Search for ‘media interview’ or similar on the internet and, as well as a tranche of articles offering advice for completing a successful interview, you’ll come across no shortage of videos showing just what can happen when you disregard that advice – thanks to the handy compilations of some generous YouTubers.
Now, media interviews are a vital part of any Public Relations campaign, offering a chance for your company to directly reach your key target audiences, while building a valuable relationship with a journalist.
However – as I’m sure Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe would attest to – any live opportunity comes with an inherent measure of risk.
While not all of us will have the fortune (or misfortune) of voicing our opinions live on TV, it’s important to do everything you can to minimise the chances of an unfortunate mishap that could undermine your company’s PR aims.
To achieve this, comprehensive media training is by far the best way forward, allowing you to practice with, and ask questions of, trained media experts in a confidential setting.
However, in advance of this, it’s worth doing some research of your own.
If you’re really looking for a quick fix (or if your interview is in 10 minutes’ time), take a look at the top 7 media interview tips for acing the opportunity.
However, to really learn what media interviews are all about, it’s worth reading on. This post – which outlines the life cycle of a media interview opportunity, linking to more in-depth articles on specific issues – should provide a good starting point for anyone seeking to harness the benefits of a media interview for their company.
What is a media interview?
Before we get too hung up on the specifics, it’s worth establishing a few basics. For the purposes of this piece, a media interview refers to a conversation with a journalist, in which you are acting as your company representative.
Depending on the nature of the opportunity, the journalist could be from a local paper (such as the Oxford Mail), a trade media title (e.g. Windpower Monthly – which, you guessed it, writes about the global wind industry every month) or even a national paper or newswire, such as The Times or Bloomberg.
In the ‘good old days’, media interviews would have consisted primarily of face-to-face meetings. Nowadays, interviews are most commonly conducted over the phone – capitalizing on the technology that allows you, your PR advisor, and the journalist, to dial in from remote corners of the world. Ah, progress.
Mind you, I recently hosted a phone interview in which a 15-hour time difference between my client and the journalist necessitated a late night for the client and a 7am start to the working day for me. As the comedian Carrie Snow once said, ‘Technology… brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.’
Reflections on the trappings of modernity aside, media interviews can also take the form of broadcast interviews – in which the conversation is broadcast ‘live’ on radio or TV – and written interviews. See this post for a breakdown of the nuances that are specific to each, and how to maximise the benefit from them.
Why should you bother?
This is all well and good, but why should you bother? With a host of other, more commercially urgent, projects on your to-do list, why make the time?
In fact, there are a multitude of reasons why you should talk to the media. I mentioned above that media interviews allow you to directly reach your target audiences, increase your visibility, and demonstrate your credentials as a thought leader in your industry.
In addition, interviews offer the chance to build a rapport with a journalist, ensuring that you become their ‘go-to’ for media commentary in the future.
It’s not an overstatement to say that media interviews are one of the most important tools for elevating your company’s profile in the market and attracting direct commercial enquiries.
And as they say, if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
So, with that in mind, read on for how to secure and prepare for an opportunity, how to ace the interview itself, and what to do when it’s all over.
Before the interview
Long before you even think about doing a media interview, you need a coherent, consistent company ‘brand’, which will inform the key messages that should be the focus of all Public Relations work undertaken on behalf of the business.
Your Marketing department or agency will already have worked with your company to develop the brand name, logo, and ‘voice’ of the business, and to define its position in the market.
From a PR perspective, all of this information must now be unified and integrated with your media messaging – which is most effectively accomplished by developing a Message House.
Once your core Message House has been fully developed and signed off by the company board, directors, and so on, you’re good to go.
All you’re missing now is an interested journalist…
Attracting media interest
In order to attract initial media interest, work with your PR team, identifying any news or developments in your sector on which you can comment. Capitalize on the best resource you have, and talk to your team for interesting opinions on the market. Your PR team will now work their magic with this raw material to secure interview opportunities with key contacts in the media.
In most cases, journalists will liaise directly with your PR team, who will then relay any opportunities to you, along with some advice and preparation for the interview. However, on the odd occasion, a journalist may get in touch with you directly – perhaps because they are working to a tight deadline and looking for a quick comment to add to their story.
In the worst-case scenario – usually during a period of crisis or scandal for a company – journalists have been known to attempt ‘doorstep interviews’ to force a representative into talking to them.
While these are more tricky to deal with, doorstep interviews are rare. In most cases, a journalist will get in touch via email or phone.
How you respond will depend on a number of factors, including the context of the enquiry (does it come following some terrible company publicity, or in the wake of an exciting new product launch?) and the nature of the request (do you feel confident discussing the topic, or would you rather do some research before answering questions on it?)
Managing an inbound interview enquiry requires a judgment call; you can decide to chat to the journalist on the spur of the moment or put them off for a few hours until you’ve done some research. Whatever you decide, make sure to inform your PR team of the enquiry, and allow them to steer your conduct.
Choosing a spokesperson
Of course, it may be the case that you aren’t the best person in the company to answer the curious journalist’s questions, and that they would be much better redirected to a colleague who specialises in their area of interest.
Each interview opportunity requires the right company spokesperson – and it may not be you.
Once you’ve decided on an appropriate company spokesperson, all that remains is for the spokesperson in question – with the help of your PR team – to ace the interview. Piece of cake, right?
The good, the bad and the ugly
Perhaps not, but there are certainly a lot of things you can learn to accelerate your development from interview novice to PR pro.
There is a whole world of information and advice out there, and the best interviewees are constantly learning and refining their technique.
For those who reach the top of their media interview game, the result can look something like this interview with Dr Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of GPs.
As Media First highlighted in their ‘Best media interviews of 2017’ list, Gerada does a great job of communicating a clear, concise argument, and staying ‘on message’ – particularly when faced with a difficult topic: the NHS proposal to reduce prescriptions.
However, not all interviews go this smoothly.
No matter how much experience you have, every media interview is a live opportunity – and even high-profile public figures such as celebrities and politicians mess up sometimes.
For those in the public eye, it’s safe to assume that any interview gaffe will be caught on camera and broadcast around the internet, as happened to Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, following a disastrous interview in the spring of 2017.
And Abbott is by no means the exception; bad media interviews happen to celebrities and politicians with such regularity that online lists compiling them are a regular feature on the internet.
As unlikely as you are to end up with a viral YouTube clip of your own, it’s worth being aware of the common mistakes made during media interviews – and how to avoid them.
These provide a good basis – but ultimately, generic advice will get you only so far. If you really want to make sure that you’re in a good position to conduct a successful media interview, one thing matters more than anything: preparation.
Whether it’s ascertaining the journalist’s aims for the interview, noting down some interesting company examples of points you’d like to illustrate, or reminding yourself of key company messaging, interview-specific preparation – with the help of your PR team – is key to success in a media interview.
During the interview
Having invested time and effort in securing, and preparing for, a media interview, you naturally want to make sure you come across in the best possible light.
The best way to conduct yourself during an interview depends on the form the interview takes but the most high-stakes format remains the live broadcast interview, whether on TV or radio.
Conducted in ‘real time’, these opportunities leave almost no room for making retrospective amends, should something go wrong. As such, they require you to think on your feet and be ready to deal with unexpected questions.
Dealing with tricky situations
Staying on your toes should enable you to avoid the pitfalls that have affected many high-profile individuals during broadcast interviews – a recent example being Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s disastrous live TV interview with Richard Madeley. Confronted with a question which he evidently found difficult to answer, Williamson, unwilling to give a straight ‘yes or no’ answer, equivocated until Madeley, frustrated, cut the interview short.
Perhaps if Williamson had read our blog post on how to deal with difficult media interview situations, he would have fared better.
Crucially, Williamson’s mistake was insulting the intelligence of both the interviewer (Madeley) and the viewers at home. We always advise honesty; if you can’t give an answer to a question, for whatever reason, don’t try and worm your way out of the situation.
Instead, take a leaf out of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s book when he was questioned on the subject of homosexuality – a notoriously tricky subject for the Church of England – by Alastair Campbell. Wells openly admitted his difficulty in reconciling his religious with his humanitarian beliefs, saying ‘I am struggling with the question’, and his honesty allowed the interview – a great read, incidentally – to progress civilly and productively.
Once you’ve had a read through our advice on handling challenging interview situations, you should be well equipped to deal with difficult questions with aplomb.
But – I’ve said it once, but it bears repeating – the best interviewees are those who are constantly learning. As in life, so in interviews: there is always room for improvement.
Going above and beyond
Once you’re comfortable with the fundamentals of conducting a good media interview, you can work on your skills further to ensure (a) that you’re the interviewee everyone wants to talk to, and (b) that these interviews deliver real commercial value for your company.
1. Get your company messaging in
First, you can work to ensure that your desired company messaging is coming across strongly. Essentially, you need to learn how to sell your business without selling your business.
This skill will require practice; it’s not easy to combine answering the journalist’s questions with providing good examples and statistics, dealing with any curve-balls, and sliding in some subtle company messaging. But it’s worth it.
2. Be ‘quotable’
Second, you can work on being ‘quotable’; on factoring in some ‘sound bites’ and adding colour to your language. (Don’t mistake this for using colourful language; that’s something else and may well get you quoted – but for all the wrong reasons).
Follow this advice, and you’re likely to complete a very successful media interview, beneficial both to you and your company, and to the journalist.
After the interview
So you’ve finally finished the interview, you’ve parted ways with the journalist or hung up the phone.. and you can switch off. (Although hopefully not too much – let former PM Gordon Brown’s ‘bigot-gate’ serve as a warning. Make sure you’re definitely in private before talking candidly.)
Besides, there is still work to be done.
Admittedly, most of it will be done by your PR team – following up with the journalist, offering extra material, perhaps checking transcripts and video cuts, and – if the interview is to be written up – monitoring its progress through the publication pipeline.
However, you can help too – by making yourself available for clarifications and positioning yourself as a willing provider of future comment.
Crucially, be patient and gracious; don’t expect or demand coverage to appear immediately – or at all – and remember that the journalist owes you nothing.
Incidentally, you may think that coverage, in a publication or on a news platform, is the ultimate aim of PR media outreach – and often, it is. After all, this is where your clients and fellow leaders in your sector will read about you and your business.
But more importantly, successful PR is about playing the long game, building relationships with journalists that will ultimately create value for both you and them. In a nutshell: coverage isn’t everything.
To sum up
Phew! If you made it this far, well done.
You should now be aware of the full life-cycle of a media interview – from the initial pitching for the opportunity, done by your PR team, to preparing for the conversation, dealing with any curve-balls during the interview itself, and following up after the event.
And hopefully, our advice on what to do during an interview – and examples of what not to do – will allow you to avoid any media gaffes of your own.
It may seem like a lot to take in – but investing time in the skills required for a successful media interview will ultimately pay off. Not only will you benefit from enhanced company visibility, but you will be able to effectively build – or reinforce – your status as a thought leader in your sector.
Provided you prepare properly and work with your PR team to manage the opportunity, there is no reason why everything shouldn’t go smoothly. Besides, and in the words of American baseball legend Babe Ruth, you should never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.
Oh – and when completing a live TV interview, if you have kids, remember to lock the door…