Talking To Reporters
While you may be contacted by a reporter to respond to a news story,
remember you are not the only source a reporter will use. Therefore, you should
speak only to your area of expertise to avoid providing reporters with a
response that can be used to contradict a colleague or other members of your
community. Remember a reporter’s job is to get the story at all costs.
If a media interview should become confrontational, because you are not giving
the reporter the answers he or she wants, or the reporter has phrased a question in a provocative manner, keep your composure and stay on message; you will have a better chance of getting your story told. Never feel forced or pressured to give an interview. If you do not want to be interviewed, it is your right to say ‘No”. Be clear from the start that you are not comfortable speaking with the press.
Before the Interview
Things to Remember When the Media Calls
What you do after the reporter calls is at least as important as a well-crafted news release.
- Organize your thoughts before calling back a reporter.
- Always ask “What is your deadline?”
- Designate a backup spokesperson if the primary spokesperson is unavailable.
- Be sure you have all the facts before answering questions.
- Know with whom you are speaking. Get background information on the publication.
- Get as much information up front. This will ensure that you answer questions thoughtfully and on point.
- If you are not prepared to answer a question, don’t. Ask if you can get back to them with the information.
- Be consistent with your answers. This will build credibility.
- Provide reporters with clear and concise answers.
- Be quotable.
- Ask for the reporter’s name, the media outlet and how you can be of help. Find out how the reporter will conduct the interview—face-toface, by telephone or by email. Is it for print or broadcast distribution?
- Ask what the person interviewing you expects and hopes to gain from the interview.
- Don’t ask for questions ahead of time or try to restrict topics.
- Participate only if you can address the area of expertise and do so within the reporter’s time constraints. If you are not the expert, refer the interview to someone else. Remember, reporters have specific information they are looking for to enhance their story.
- If you are unprepared, tell the reporter you will call back in 15 minutes or so. Collect your thoughts and then follow through on your promise to provide an interview.
Staying ‘On Message’
If you are led away from your subject or surprised by a question the following to return to your “key points”:
“Let me add…”
“Another thing to remember is…”
“The point is…”
“More to the point…”
“What we’re talking about here is…”
“The real issue/concern/problem is…”
“What’s important here is…”
“Just as important is…”
“While ___ is certainly important, don’t forget…”
“Let’s not forget…”
“Our role/job/task is…”
“Our main priority/commitment/goal is…”
“The fact is…”
“The core/gist of the matter is…”
“Good question, but…”
“That’s an interesting question, let me remind you though that…”
Extras for the reporter
These items may ensure that your name, affiliation and area of expertise are
correctly spelled, identified and explained:
- Your business card
- Fact sheets or brochures
- Any multimedia items such as a video, photos or graphics
During the Interview
Focus Your Message
Taking time to prepare for an interview is time well spent. You must be able to
answer the traditional news questions: who, what, when, where, why and how.
The simpler the message, the easier for reporters to portray it accurately.
- Know what you want to say ahead of time.
- Present three main “key points.” Too many messages can get confusing; use key words and phrases to prepare yourself.
- Try to answer all the questions.
- Use the Staying ‘On Message’ phrases that follow to return to your key messages.
Most importantly, be yourself. Be natural. If you appear artificial, people won’t
believe what you are trying to say.
- Never read your comments, even on radio when no one can see you.
- Speak clearly and distinctly in a polite tone; don’t lose your temper.
- Be enthusiastic and happy if you feel you can.
- Don’t memorize what you are going to say. You will appear as if you have practiced what you are trying to say.
Most of this is common sense, but does make a difference, even for print
- •Look professional but relaxed.
- Stand or sit up straight.
- Avoid distracting jewelry, hats, or anything with an insignia on it from a commercial institution. For television or video interviews, avoid wearing red, black, white, stripes, or small prints. A T-shirt with a saying on it in big letters almost guarantees that your audience or the reporter will read that instead of listening to you.
- Keep your hand and body gestures natural and appropriate. If your facial expressions and body language are more animated when you talk about certain things, you can bet the reporter will emphasize it.
The Five “Cs” for a Good Interview
- Be Clear
- Be Concise
- Be Conversational
- Be Consistent
- Provide Content (Give the journalist something to go on but remember your “key points.”)
Answer the “so what”
- Briefly, what do you do?
- What is interesting about it?
- Is it something new or unique?
- Why is it important? Who or what benefits?
- Does it answer a need or address an issue in the community or environment?
- 1. Avoid jargon. Explain unfamiliar terms, including acronyms.
- Make your points and stop talking. Avoid rambling and keep your answers short. If you’ve answered the question, just smile.
- Listen to each question carefully before responding. Ask for it to be repeated if you don’t understand it. Ask the reporter if you should clarify anything.
- Nothing is ever off the record. Any conversation with a journalist is an interview. Assume a journalist will print anything you say. Assume that the microphone or camera is on.
- Never say “No comment.”
- If you make a mistake when you answer a question, stop and calmly tell the reporter you’re going to start over.
- Don’t repeat the negative if you’re responding to a critical question.
- Repeating the interviewer’s words could be damaging.
- Correct any misinformation in the question before you answer it.
- Avoid rumors, gossip and lying. Stick to the facts.
This information was gathered from several sources, including the Kellogg Foundation,
the Environmental League of Massachusetts, SPIN Project, causecommunications.com,
KRON in San Francisco and PR Newswire.