“Ralph, I don’t know where you’re getting your s-s-s-s-statistics,” stammered Dick Harper, Jim Carey’s character in the movie “Fun with Dick and Jane.” Harper was thrilled to become the spokesperson for the huge conglomerate “Globodyne.” Unfortunately, he was set up by a crooked CEO (played deftly by Alec Baldwin) and woefully unprepared for the grilling he was going to get on national TV. You may or may not have seen this scene, but it’s a classic example of how an interview can go badly.
The prospect of an interview, especially one on TV, excites some public information officers (PIOs), and terrifies others. Both reactions are understandable. As is the case with most challenges, preparation makes all the difference in the world. So, with that in mind, here are some basic tips for new PIOs on media interviews.
Before the Interview
For starters, you need to know a few things. Who is the reporter? What’s the topic or issue? Will this be on camera? Do you know enough about the topic to talk about it, or do you need to bring in a Subject Matter Expert? For example, a PIO can easily offer basic fire prevention tips, but if a reporter wants to talk about what specific fire codes require the installation of sprinkler systems, then you should probably get someone in your department who can speak at length about fire codes.
The basic premise is this: know your material and be prepared for the interview. Going into an interview unprepared can result in a very bad experience, as Jim Carey so artfully demonstrated in that movie.
If however, you determine that the topic or issue does not apply to you or your department, you should politely decline the interview and redirect the reporter to the appropriate agency. If the request does apply to you, then get yourself ready.
Preparing for the Interview
Now that you know what the topic of the interview is, it’s time to gather the information you need. Whenever possible, it’s good to have more information than what’s needed for the interview. This reinforces the impression that you are credible and that you know what you’re talking about. Depending on the topic, you might print out a fact sheet or some background information that you can give to the reporter. That helps the reporter do his/her job, builds your reputation as a professional PIO, and boosts the odds that the reporter will get the story right.
Preparing Key Messages
The reporter wants something from you…information. Put aside the reporter for a moment. What do you want to happen from this interview? Is there anything you would really like the public to know? If so, prepare a few key points that can each be stated in roughly 15 seconds. In doing so you’ve just prepared “sound bites” for TV reporters. No matter how right you are about an issue, if you can’t pare it down to a sound bite or two, it won’t get used. No, that’s not fair, but that’s generally the way it works. Print reporters have more room for longer quotes, but they like short, “pithy,” statements too. A good way to prepare for the interview and those key messages is to practice beforehand, preferably with someone who can ask questions that will likely be asked by reporters.
Staying on Message
You may have heard the phrase “staying on message” from time to time. It has a somewhat negative connotation with reporters, because it implies that you might have something to hide. What I mean by staying on message is this: don’t allow the reporter to steer you in a direction you don’t want to go. For example, let’s say you’re on a hazmat scene and the reporter wants you to speculate on what could happen if a tank, or a certain chemical, explodes or spreads elsewhere. While the odds of this doomsday scenario may be low, just talking about it will make a good story on the 6 o’clock news and possibly scare the public into a frenzy. In refusing to speculate, you’re not hiding anything; you’re just not going to help a reporter scare everyone to death.