PIO 101: Tips for Media Interviews

“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...

Instead, “bridge” back to your key points. “I’m not going to speculate on what might happen. What’s important right now is that we have hazmat technicians on the scene and they are working diligently to protect the public.” Bridging back to your own points is a key technique used by veteran PIOs. You can acknowledge the question, but very quickly bring it back to what you want the public to know. “Yes, this is a serious situation and I can assure you that we have responders on the scene right now who are working hard to eliminate the hazard.” With a statement like this, you’re acknowledging the question, but quickly bridging to your own message meant to reassure the public. And since a statement like that is roughly eight seconds long, you’ve created a sound bite, which makes it more likely that it will be used.

In my opinion, using the bridging technique is preferable to simply ignoring the question. If you do, you run the risk of appearing arrogant, and you may indeed give the impression that you’re hiding something. Viewers watching you ignore a reporter’s question on that hazmat scenario may well wonder if the situation is worse than you’re letting on. Bridging gives a nod to the question, and then quickly gets back to the information you want the public to have.

Take Charge of the Interview

As I said earlier, reporters want information from you. It’s your job to provide that information, but try to do so on your terms. Keep bridging back to your key messages. Use phrases such as “Our main concern is…” or “Our focus is….”

PIOs are no doubt the smartest, and most modest, people on earth. Still, there will be times when reporters ask questions for which you have no answer. Don’t panic. It’s okay to say you don’t know the answer, as long as you indicate that you will do your best to get an answer and get back to them as soon as possible. If that happens though, be sure you actually do get back to them. Otherwise, your credibility will take a hit. As I mentioned in a previous article, it takes a long time to build up your credibility as a professional PIO, but it takes no time at all to trash it beyond repair.

When you think you’ve answered a particularly tough question satisfactorily, shut up. Don’t fall for the reporter’s tactic of looking at you expectantly with the microphone in your face. Inexperienced PIOs, and many others, feel the need to fill the silence with additional comments. If you’ve answered the question, stop talking.

Don’t forget your body language and overall appearance, especially for television. If you’re being interviewed about the department getting a new fire truck, feel free to smile. If you’re talking about a fire fatality, you need to take on a more serious tone. Please avoid that “I’m just glad to be on TV” look, regardless of what you’re talking about. (TV news anchors are sometimes guilty of this too.) Your demeanor should match the situation.

When the interview appears to be over, don’t let your guard down. You’re still on the record and anything you say within earshot of the microphone or a reporter’s ear can and will be used against you. Obviously, there are many occasions when this is not the case, but you should keep this in mind as a matter of practice.

Much more could be said on this topic, but those are some of the basics on media interviews. In closing, here are some additional quick tips on media interviews:

  • Anticipate what the reporter will ask and prepare accordingly.
  • Don’t use firefighter jargon. Your information isn’t going to fellow firefighters. It’s going to the general public.
  • Offer reliable information.
  • If the information you offered is incorrect, correct the error and take responsibility for it.
  • Don’t speculate, guess, assume or hypothesize.
  • Don’t argue with a reporter.
  • Don’t play favorites. Treat all reporters the same.
  • Treat reporters with respect and they will usually respond in kind.
  • Know reporters’ deadlines.
  • Avoid “off-the-record” remarks.
  • Don’t lose your cool.
  • Don’t be intimidated.
  • Monitor the news coverage that follows the interview to ensure its accuracy.
  • Special TV Tips:
  •     a) Dress the part. Look professional
  •     b) Avoid simple “yes” or “no” answers. Elaborate a little, but get to the point.
  •     c) No sunglasses.
  •     d) No smoking or chewing.
  • Never, ever lie!

Next time: Marketing Your Fire Department