Most of the time the department's Public Information Officer should do the interviews, they are the department spokesperson. By using the same person on most occasions, studies have shown it builds a confidence with the community.
But in some cases it is better for some other people to conduct the interviews and the PIO should assist them with setting up and during the interview. Here is some of the protocol I use:
- If it deals with a policy issue, I usually suggest to the Fire Chief that they do the interview. Policies usually come from the top and it gives a better appearance if the leadership is announcing the change.
- If it is a city policy I will usually direct the media to the city PIO (after I discussed it with them so they know the media will be calling.) Items such as adding speed bumps to roadways, budget changes, items that are controlled by city hall.
- Delicate personnel matters should always be discussed with the fire chief or a city official before doing any interviews. In some cases another department such as personnel or human resources may handle it.
- In some cases you may want to discuss a potential interview with the legal representative for your department. Especially if you have reasons to believe the incident may involve a lawsuit.
So how do you get out of doing an interview for some of the above, if you refuse doesn't that throw up red flags? In many cases it does. Anything that is under investigation does not have to be released to the media and you can state so. It doesn't necessarily mean that something wrong has occurred, it means you are investigating the incident and want to find out all the facts before discussing it. Also anything, which might end up in litigation, does not have to be discussed and many times you can state the fact to the media "that our department does not discuss matters that are in potential litigation."
Many times I am asked for tips on how to conduct an interview, here are some of my most important:
When I have to respond after hours from home to a working incident, I have a special set of coveralls that I wear with patches on each arm so it is obvious that I am with the fire department. For after hours interviews not connected with an incident I wear my class B uniform. I have NEVER done an interview in civilian clothes (unless civilian clothes is the uniform.) In some cases I was required to wear a business suit, but still displayed a uniform badge or pin that identified me as a member of the department.
PREPARE FOR YOUR INTERVIEW - Research your subject before the interview. Think of questions you would ask if you were the reporter and find the answers. If it concerns an incident, read past reports and refresh your memory.
IF YOU ARE SITTING IN A CHAIR during the interview sit up straight, never lean back in the chair.
KEEP YOUR STATEMENTS SIMPLE - Do not use technical terms that people don't understand. Most people do not know what a deluge gun is, but if you use the term water cannon, they can imagine something that shoots a lot of water.
NEVER SPECULATE OR GIVE OPINIONS - PIOs only state the facts. Today if you speculate or give an opinion chances are you will end up in court as a witness testifying to what you said if the incidents ends up in a lawsuit.
KEEP YOUR SENTENCES SIMPLE AND PAUSE BETWEEN SENTENCES. Most sound bytes are only a few seconds. It is has a better chance of being used if it is simple and short-about 7-15 seconds in length. Between sentences, pause for a few seconds before saying something else. This is the sign of a true professional as it gives the production crew time to edit the sound bytes cleanly.
STAND STILL WHEN BEING INTERVIEWED - Don't sway back and forth. It makes it hard for the cameraperson to stay focused on you. It also makes you look like you are nervous.
KEEP YOUR HANDS CLASPED BEHIND OR IN FRONT OF YOU - This way your arms do not sway and you won't have a tendency to play with items in your pockets.
DO NOT WEAR SUNGLASSES - Even if it is sunny outside, take the glasses off during the interview.
DO NOT EAT FOOD, SMOKE OR CHEW GUM - It does not look professional and people might hear something different than what you said if you have food in your mouth. (Whenever I am going to be interviewed I only drink water, never soft drinks or eat anything. When being interviewed people, including the pros, get nervous and soft drinks and food can create gas which can lead to problems.)
AVOID ANSWERS OF JUST YES OR NO - An interview is a conversation. Explain your answers.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO SAY " I DON'T KNOW" - If you don't have the answer to a question, say so. Sometimes you will get questions that take some research. It is better to say, "I don't know" than to speculate.
KEEP TO THE POINT - Don't be mislead during you interview, give correct and concise answers.
WEAR DARK CLOTHING - It makes for a better image on TV. Lighter clothes make the background darker which gives a sinister image. I always carry a dark jacket I can throw on for a few minutes for the interview, even during the summer.
LOOK AT THE REPORTER DURING THE INTERVIEW, NOT THE CAMERA. It is a conversation between you and the reporter. Pretend the camera is not there unless you are directed to do so. Sometimes a cameraperson will come on scene without a reporter to get a quick sound byte. Again, look away from the camera; pretend you are looking at a reporter next to the camera.
WATCH FACIAL EXPRESSIONS - Make sure you are not smiling when talking about something serious, especially fatalities.
NEVER USE THE TERM "NO COMMENT" - It is better to say that you cannot discuss it at this time or you don't have the answer and you will get back to them when you do.
NEVER ENTERAIN A HYPOTHETICAL QUESTION or speculate about an issue.
IF NOT ON FIRE DEPARTMENT PROPERTY make sure you have permission to do the interview. Private property is out without the permission of the property owner. Most of my out of station interviews are done in the street or on a public sidewalk. If they want to do an interview in a commercial store such as in the heating department to explain heater safety, check with the store's manager to ensure they are aware of the interview before agreeing to do it.
WORDS IN THE BOX
When doing an interview, journalist are "not suppose" to use words that did not come out of your mouth. When giving an interview pretend there is a box on the ground in front of you. Every word that comes out of your mouth falls into the box. The journalist giving the interview can use any word that is in the box. After the interview is over, the journalist takes the box, closes it and shakes it up. How and what words come out of the box can be used. May not be in the order you said them, but if they are in the box, they can be used.
Arson is a great word. Journalists like to use it; sometimes fire service personnel do not. If YOU don't put the word in the box, they cannot (are not suppose) to use it. In our department, we don't use the word arson until we are absolutely sure the incident was the result of arson. Sometimes they will ask, "Is there a chance the fire is the result of arson?" Many times people will reply, "We are not sure if it is arson, the fire is still under investigation." THERE you put the word in the box and it will probably come out in the news as: "Investigators look into the possibility of arson." It would have been more correct to reply, "We are not sure what caused the fire, it remains under investigation." That way the word arson is not in the box and they can't use it.
For the most part, the media for interview work uses two types of microphones: wireless lapel microphones and shotgun microphones. You should be very careful of both.
WIRELESS LAPEL MICROPHONES are usually used for interviews close-up. They will put a wireless transmitter hidden somewhere on your, usually clipped to your belt, and the microphone will be put on your lapel, tie, somewhere close to your mouth. The receiver can either be on the camera or in the media vehicle, which is parked close by.
After the interview is completed, remember to take the microphone off and hand it back to the reporter. Sometimes the media will "accidentally forget" to take it off and you walk away. A few minutes later you are talking to the Incident Commander and they are still able to hear what is being said either through the camera or in the media vehicle.
Another trick is "mic you up" and do the interview. Sometime during the interview they will stop and say they need to go back to the truck to get something (like a fresh battery) and will finish the interview in a few minutes. While the interview is stopped, they will let the camera continue rolling. Although they are not getting any images, the tape is still recording audio. I have had media crews try to do this to me several times, you should beware.
SHOTGUN MICROPHONES - Although shotgun mics are not new, the technology has gotten better. Shotguns are used for long distance hearing. Very rarely are they used for close-up interviews. Usually seen on the camera near the handle on top, these are very long narrow microphones. They can pick up conversations from great distances. What you should be aware of is these can, in some cases, pick up your conversation while talking to the Incident Commander or investigators. Usually the camera will be pointed in the direction of what they want to hear. Although what is heard will not be used, it does give the reporter ideas for new questions. Very sensitive issues should be communicated inside a vehicle with the doors closed and windows up.
THE "TWO SHOT"
Many times after an interview is completed, the cameraperson and reporter may say they want to do a "two shot." In the two shot, the camera is put behind you so they can see the back of your head and the reporter's face. While the two shot is being done, the reporter may make light conversation about anything just to keep you talking. Sometimes the two shot is used to insert conversation that was audio taped while the camera while not pointed at you. Remember the wireless mic being sometimes "accidentally" left on you. While you walk away, or they went back to the truck to get something, you might say something that you would not have said during the interview. Once again, if they asked you if it was all right to ask you questions, anything from that point on can be used. If you put the word in the box, it can be used.
Telephone interviews are usually done by radio stations and the print media. Only in extreme cases will television media do telephone interviews. During a telephone interview, you should ALWAYS assume your conversation is being recorded, especially by radio stations. ANYTHING you say during the conversation with a radio station can be used. You should also assume the conversation is live. Telephone conversations are usually pretty easy to do, you must know your subject in advance and think about what you are going to say before saying it.
Radio stations have a difficult time talking with PIOs during working incidents and yet they are a good source to release information. Remember to take the time and call radio stations and ask if you can provide an interview. Most of the time they will use it.
In Las Vegas, I have a special telephone line where I made recorded updates on during an incident. I know that information is going to be used by the radio stations, so after I hear the beep to know the recorder is on, I imagine I am talking to the radio stations. When they get the chance, they will call in and record the recording I made. In almost every case one radio station or another uses the recordings. Many times the TV stations and print media will also call in to get updates.
If you have any questions or comments, please call me at 702-229-0145 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.