“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”Benjamin Franklin
Let’s say, you’ve accepted a media interview request. And you’re new to the news media landscape, or you’ve just started in your spokesperson role. Or you’re receiving unexpected attention from the press. These are the kinds of situations that usually provoke a sense of panic, particularly if you’re not seasoned in doing media interviews.
If you work for a large organisation, chances are this is where someone like me – a communications specialist, manager, or media adviser – becomes involved. The work titles might differ from what I’ve noted here, but the function is the same: to help you prepare for your interview.
If you’re a small not-for-profit community entity or an individual, you likely won’t have a team or a media adviser to support you. This post is written particularly with you in mind to provide you with concrete action steps.
Tried and True Method
I’ll take you through the tried and proven steps I’ve taken to support public media spokespersons. I tend to dive deep into preparing for a single interview. Why? Because the adage, preparation precedes power is very true in my experience. Plus, that might be the only chance that you get to speak to the media and give your side of the story in your own voice. Maybe you want to use this opportunity to promote your organisation, or your research, and get your name out there. Those are all acceptable reasons to do one.
But the other reality is that there are circumstances in which agreeing to a media interview may not be the wisest decision or the right thing to do. I’m not referring to emergency situations where a natural disaster or public health emergency has taken place. That’s an entirely different set of circumstances and that’s not the focus of this post. Suffice to say that in emergencies such as natural disasters fronting the media, at the earliest opportunity, is vital to building and maintaining the public’s trust.
Look After Yourself
Even so, self-care is very important. Because being a media spokesperson and doing regular media interviews, having to be ‘on’ all the time, and opening the door to public feedback on social media, takes a toll on people. It can be a relentless and taxing experience. And sometimes an interview may have unintended consequences and impact you, long after the interview has been done. So be mindful of that if you’re not normally a public figure in the public eye.
With that said, let’s get into the deep dive preparation for your next media interview.
Step 1: Set up an online filing system
Setting up your online filing system for your media interviews is a critical step and one not to overlook. It keeps your notes and files organised in one location. This is an alternative to keeping all your documents in random or multiple locations on your computer.
Create a folder and call it Media Interviews or Media Relations or News Interviews, whatever your naming preference. It just needs to be a name that will clearly identify the purpose of the folder to you. I’ll refer to that folder as the parent folder.
Inside that parent folder, create a separate folder for that one interview.
- Name the interview folder according to how you prefer to organise your filename.
- Just make it clear.
- Shorten the filename in a way that works for you, if needed.
- Decide on the way you will order your filename and stick with it.
This is how you can organise your folders and filing system.
Set this up first and you’ll be able to easily find what you’re looking for at short notice, even when you’re under stress.
Step 2 Gather information
I go through the questions for Step 2 in the post I wrote earlier on Media Training: how to prepare for radio and television media interviews.
Ask the right questions to get the right information. It’s important to know who will be interviewing you, the name of the show and program, how long the interview is scheduled for, whether it will be live or pre-recorded, and where you will be doing the interview.
Will anyone else be interviewed alongside you or as part of the story coverage? Ask these questions upfront so there are no surprises. Do thorough research.
Product or Service
If the interview is about your service or product, then you need to be fully informed about your product, its strengths, and weaknesses, what consumers have said about it online positive and negative, its supply chain, what’s working what’s not, everything. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be sharing all that information in an interview, not at all. But it means that you’ll be prepared to answer any question. The more prepared you are, the better you’ll feel.
Issue or Topic
If the interview is about an issue or a topic in the public domain, then you need to be fully informed about the current public debate and the responses of other key stakeholders in the media. The good, the bad, the ugly.
Watch and read the previous news media coverage, including coverage by the news media outlet that is interviewing you. This includes watching news coverage videos of your interviewer interviewing guests. It will reveal their interview style and the kinds of questions you’ll likely get, and other helpful information.
Where do you gather this information from? Check their website, their social media pages. Add to that your own research on Google, Youtube, and social media. The Internet is your research lab. A word of caution, though:
- Be careful and discerning with the information you accept.
- Not all websites follow standards of accuracy with what they post online.
- There’s a lot of disinformation which is deliberately misleading information designed to mislead and fool people.
- There are websites set up as news outlets that are not bona fide real sites.
- Always check the legitimacy of the sources of information you use.
The Internet is a microcosm of the offline world. So expect to find the best of the world on the Internet, and the worst on there, as well, with all the dangers and threats that come with that.
Step 3: Check for style and bias
“…my own attitude is that the operative bias to worry about in the press is not a liberal bias, or even a conservative bias, though those exist. The operative bias you’ve got to worry about is the bias for conflict, and I think that oftentimes does cause us to have mindless coverage of events and to focus on the wrong thing, not on policy but on who’s involved in a spat with each other. That gives a nice headline. And maybe our editors and bosses who worried about circulation and ratings like that more. But it isn’t necessarily the function we’re supposed to perform. …”Ken Auletta, The New Yorker’s Annals of Communications and Author of Backstory: Inside the Business of News .
The beauty of checking the interviewer’s interviewing style and their known biases is that you enter the media interview armed with information. You know who will be interviewing you, their interview style, the angle they may take, including their positions on issues that are part of your world.
When I refer to style, I’m referring to their interviewing approach. Do they launch straight into quick-fire questions? Or are they likely to share an experience to give context before giving you the question? Do they interrupt mid-stream if they need further clarification? Are they personable, warm, or combative? There are other questions you may want answers to, but these questions give you prompts for your research questions.
Knowing the interviewer’s style helps to prepare you, so there are no surprises and you’re not blindsided by their approach.
Adults are human beings. Our minds and hearts carry our beliefs, our attitudes, our likes and dislikes, and our personal experiences to our work lives. The bias and angles of a news outlet are important to know before agreeing to be interviewed, particularly if you are interviewing on a contentious issue.
Journalists, like everyone else, bring their own personal and professional biases into an issue or story whether it’s acknowledged or not. Those biases are very evident when you look at a topic, for example, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex otherwise known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Depending on the media outlet, for example, the English tabloids and Sky News (Murdoch media empire) in England and Australia, the story treatment has very nasty undertones and consistently vilifies the couple.
That bias, and what reads like pure hatred towards Meghan Markle in those stories, is hard to ignore. Even the facts are ignored or disputed depending on which tabloid or Murdoch Press is covering the story. That is the most glaring example I can give you of journalistic bias. It’s real.
Step 4: Anticipate questions
“Question like a child, reason like an adult, and write like a sage.”Criss Jami
Anticipate the questions that you could be asked in your interview from the easy-to-answer to the most difficult-to-answer. This is also a step you can use when preparing for a job interview.
Write down all the questions that you anticipate might be asked. Ask close friends and colleagues for their feedback on anticipated questions.
Think about your answers, write down the facts, and decide how you will answer the questions. If it’s a topic or issue, then you will also want to articulate your position on it. So, your position or ideas and the facts combine to create your answer.
If you work for an organisation, chances are there will be rules and guidelines about the release of information and doing media interviews. So your responses will be framed within the regulations or staff policies you are obliged to follow, and present on behalf of your organisation.
If you are a board member of a listed charity or company, the roles of directors are regulated and there may also be media policies to uphold. So it’s important for people to get appropriate advice, including legal where it’s a listed company and subject to strict regulations about the release of information, for example, before commenting to the media. So that your interview doesn’t breach legislation and regulation for your sector.
On the other hand, for people outside of those regulated and organisational settings, you will have more freedom. With that freedom, however, comes responsibility and the need for prudence and wisdom in making wise choices about what you discuss in the media and how much you make available to do that. For Anticipated Questions, I recommend that you create a standalone document for this.
Step 5: Process, understand & practice
Once you’ve gathered relevant information for your media interview, think about organising the information into relevant categories for you and your purposes. If you’ve done that as you’ve gathered info, bravo. For example, your headings and subheadings can be your categories, as follows:
Background Paper on Media Interview
Details of Interview
What’s the interview about?
What’s your communication goal?
Influence, persuade or inform on what_______and to which audiences_______for what reason.
Call to Action
Provided questions (if that info has been given to you beforehand)
Anticipated Questions and Answers
When it comes to Step 4: Anticipated questions, I recommend that you create a separate document for this, unless you only have a few questions. Keep it succinct and keep your responses to the point. It doesn’t need to be a long document, just one that gives you the information you need to know. Add links to the stories or articles so you can quickly go there. Go through your background document and read it.
If your communication goal is to persuade or influence people on an issue, then your answers to questions need to be highly nuanced to the communication needs of your audience. That is, you need to be responsive to the layers of diversity and complexity in an issue and at the same time, be cognisant of your different audiences, including your target one.
Seek First to Understand
Dr Steve Covey, the author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People said it best: seek first to understand.
Process, ponder, and re-read relevant information on the issue, product, or service until you understand the material.
Before you agree to a media interview, it’s absolutely vital that you understand the issues or the service and product you will be interviewed about, and your responses to them. Because if you don’t understand your own material or the issues to be discussed, you won’t be able to explain yourself well. Oftentimes, when a person does not understand, their answers make no sense and it only confuses people, and it kills credibility.
But once you understand an issue or a topic, then you will find it much easier to explain it to others. Keep your sentence structures simple. Focus on expressing yourself, rather than impressing others.
Practice Practice Practice
Practicing comes next. It’s a critical deep-dive step that I encourage you not to miss. It will help you identify your blind spots through feedback. One quick tip: if your answers sound unclear to you, chances are they’ll sound unclear to others.
Book time and bring together a small circle of friends or colleagues to do at least one practice run. This is a role play, a simulated session, of you responding to their questions. First and foremost, this is a practice session to get frank and critical feedback on how you interview and see what you need to work on and improve. It isn’t a practice session to listen to praise unless it is sincere and warranted.
Listen for feedback
Are you speaking clearly and confidently? Are there any visual distractions in how you communicate, facial expressions, or unconscious body tics? Are your answers correct and do you make sense? Do you sound like you know what you’re talking about? Are you rambling? Are you hitting the right tone for this media interview? All these questions, and more, can be answered before an interview by doing practice runs, as I call them.
Listening to valid feedback helps improve your communication.
Step 6: Understand the media’s role in media interview
In a media interview, the media’s role is not your role. I write about this in my previous blog post on media training. Understanding this will help you manage expectations and not be blindsided when you’re asked a question. The media have an important role to play in society as the Fourth Estate. They hold governments and the powerful to account, without fear or favor, well that’s the intent.
One mistake that people new to the media often make is misunderstanding the media’s role, and misunderstanding a journalist’s friendliness. For example, when you’re called by a journalist, usually a producer or news writer, to discuss your work or project, or position, they are not calling you to have a chit-chat because they want to be your best friend, even though they’re super friendly. They’re calling you in their professional capacity to do their job on behalf of their news organisation.
Being friendly comes with the territory usually. Journalists tend to be social chatty people. If you strike up a friendship later, that’s another story. But for the purposes of preparing for your media interview, remember their job is not to do your job and help you represent your organisation.
Your job is to represent yourself and your position, your service or product as clearly and as persuasively as possible. All the best!