IN PERSON INTERVIEWS
Many times the print media will do an "in person" interview. It can be about an incident on scene, or they are doing an in-depth story about a fire service issue. In every case you should assume a pocket recorder is recording the conversation.
Many times if the issue is very sensitive and you believe there may be some fallout after the interview, other personnel should be present during the interview. Many times if the interview is extremely sensitive the fire chief will handle the interview, but I am usually present. By having someone with you or you are acting as the PIO and assisting department personnel with being interviewed, you have a backup in case an issue arises. And in some cases YOU might want to record the interview yourself. A few times in my career this saved my job. What I said and what was printed were not accurate and because I had another person from the department present, they were able to back me up and confirm the article was not correct.
INTERVIEWS AT EMERGENCY SCENES
Many times PIOs will have to do interviews while at the scene of an incident. Here are some ideas to make it easier.
First establish a media area so all of the media is together and you can do your interviews all at the same time.
When you first get them together, give them a little tease to keep them interested. Use some of the information you gathered while enroute to the scene and then advise them you will meet with the Incident Commander to get an update and more information. Tell them you will return to the same spot in a few minutes.
After you have gathered your information and are ready to make a statement, go back to your established media area and inform the media you are ready to make a statement. This gives them a chance to get their equipment ready. At this time they will "mic you up," set up cameras, audio recorders and the like. Sometimes they will ask you to hold up something white so they can adjust their cameras. This is called a "white balance." This is usually done just before the interview is about to start. If you use your notebook, make sure there isn't anything on the page you don't want repeated.
When it seems everyone is ready, ask to make sure. Your first comment should be you telling them your name and spell it slowly and then follow it with your title and the department you represent. This is valuable information for the editors who have to add the graphics.
Give an overview of the incident, making sure that you cover all the questions of: who, what, when, where, why and how.
After you are done giving the information, is when questions will probably follow. Remember to look at the reporters while doing the interview. And if there are several reporters on scene, make sure you look at everyone during the interview.
After the questions are done, you may be asked to do a solo interview for a station. If you do it for one station, make sure you are available for everyone else also. Never do exclusives.
NOTHING IS EVER "OFF THE RECORD"
No matter how long or how good you know someone in the media, you should NEVER converse anything you would not want repeated or printed. There is absolutely no such thing as "off the record." NEVER release information "anomalously" to the media. Somewhere along the line it can be traced back to you and if it is matter of that person saving their job, they will sell you out in a minute. This is a loser and could cost you your job.
BEING A GUEST ON A TV OR RADIO SHOW
Sometimes you may be asked to be a guest on a TV or radio show. This is a different type of an interview, which involves planning. Here are some hints:
If you are asked to be on the show, there must be a specific reason why you were asked. Make sure you know what the subject is so you can research it. It may be about fire safety, fire recruitment or it could be a controversial subject such as closing fire stations or budget cuts. In any event, do your homework and research your subject. You should ask if you could offer questions for the host to ask. Many times they will take you up on it, which is an advantage for you, you will already know the questions. If asked to make up questions, they will probably ask you to fax or e-mail them in ahead of time so they can review them. If asked to make up the questions, make sure you create ones that will help deliver your message.
On the day of the show, arrive at least a half hour early. This way you have time to relax and to review your material. When you enter the building, leave your pagers and cell phones in the car. It is very embarrassing to have them go off during your interview. Take a bottle of water in with you. Many times before a show, people get nervous and their mouth will get dry. Just sip your water.
If your stomach starts to get upset, take deep breaths and relax. Many times I will carry peppermint candy and keep one in my mouth up until the time the interview is about the start. It not only keeps your mouth moist, the peppermint will also calm your stomach.
While in the TV or radio station, remember to stay as quiet as possible since you may be taken into an area which maybe on the air.
Again, keep your answers short and concise. Answers should not be longer than 30 seconds.
When on a TV show, remember the camera may be on you at any time without you knowing it, so watch what you do. Maintain most of your eye contact with the host of the program.
Do not be tempted to look at the monitor. It can destroy your concentration.
OVERALL ADVICE FOR INTERVIEWS
- Always be polite and helpful with the media.
- Never lose your temper.
- Be prepared, research you subject
- Make sure your boss knows about the interview before and after.
- Stick to your area of responsibility (don't talk about other agency responsibilities)
- Always tell the truth - never lie.
- If you don't know the answer, tell them you need more time.
- If you don't understand the question, have them repeat it.
- Look professional
- Avoid professional jargon - keep it simple.
- Never speculate or give personal opinions.
- Always respect the media's deadline.
- If you tell them you will get back to them, or call them back - make sure you do it.
- Never be sarcastic
- Do make off the cuff comments.
- Keep your answers or comments short and concise.
- Answer the who, what, when, where, why and how.
- Squash any rumors that may be floating about.
- Never say anything you don't want broadcast or printed.
Lastly I refuse to do some interviews, especially if our department was not the lead agency. I do not do interviews related to motor vehicle accidents, unless they want to cover the rescue part, such as a difficult extrication. MOST of the time I will advise the media to talk to the police or highway patrol PIO, auto accidents are their area of responsibility. (We wouldn't want the police to be doing interviews about a fire, so respect their area.)
I never do interviews related to drug labs, again this is law enforcement matter and our local media knows we will not do them.
Concerning matters of terrorism; the Federal Bureau of Investigation is the lead agency for public information. Since September 11th, we do not discuss what equipment we have in relation to responding to terrorism, plans and the like. Terrorist use the media to gather their information and if we feel it is a matter of sensitive nature, we tell the media we cannot discuss it, and when it is explained to the media that way they always understand.
Be careful about doing interviews about emergency medical responses. In some states medical confidentiality laws protect the patient and releasing ANY information without their consent is a violation and you could be held personally liable. My rule of thumb is: if the report was done on a medical run report, it is confidential. If the run was done on a fire report, the information may be released. (You should check your local laws to be sure.)
If you ever get the chance, take a video recorder and practice doing interviews in the station with your personnel, then play them back on the TV. Like doing drills or simulations, practice makes perfect. And if you are the PIO, this is how you build confidence and make yourself more professional.
If you have any questions or comments, please call me at 702-229-0145 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.