The Fire Service PIO: Handling Media Interviews

At one time or another, every public information officer (PIO) will have to give an interview to the news media. It is one of the main duties of a PIO. There are several types of interviews, but I am going to focus on the “big three” – print media, radio and TV. Social media is also a main player today, but it usually falls into one of the big three categories.

Regardless which of the “big three” media is interviewing you, basic rules apply. First, if you are asked to do an interview and you agree, keep your promise. If you cannot commit at the time, tell the reporter you cannot respond until you determine whether you will be able to grant an interview.

When you are invited, ask several questions before you agree to an interview: What is the subject of the interview? What is it going to be used for? How long will it take to conduct the interview? Where and when does the reporter want to do it? What are some of the questions the reporter plans to ask? The reporter took time to prepare questions, so it is only fair to give you adequate time to prepare responses.

Before you agree to be interviewed, make sure it is approved by the proper chain of command in your department. If applicable, determine whether the interview would be handled better by another department or agency. You should only grant interviews about subjects that pertain to your area of responsibility.


A professional appearance

When you conduct your interview, appear professional. Wear your uniform or turnout gear, depending on the circumstances. If you are wearing a uniform, try not to wear white for video interviews. Cameras use white to “balance” (a technical item) the lens in the camera and a white shirt can throw it off. I usually wear a black sweater, jacket or turnout coat for my interviews. “Shooters” (jargon used in the media world for camerapersons) will not ask you to wear something in particular, but if you do it without being asked, they know they are working with a pro. Have a white piece of paper or other white item available so when they are setting up the camera and ask you to stand in front for the set up, hold the white item under your chin so they can balance the camera (it makes you look better). If you really want to impress them, hold it so it is long ways (a 3X5 card, make the five-inch edge horizontal) because TVs and monitors are longer and can balance even more.

At the beginning of any interview, give your name and then spell it out letter by letter, your title and the department you represent. Proceed with the interview until it is complete.

For telephone interviews, be sure you are in a quiet place. If you are at home, go to a room where you cannot hear barking dogs, children yelling or loud music. If a hard line phone is available, that should be your first preference because cell phones sometimes drop calls.

Do not conduct interviews in your office. I prefer to use a conference room at headquarters or depending on what the subject matter is another place in the building. If the interview is about a previous fire, I suggest standing in front of an apparatus; if the story is about how to make a 911 call correctly, the communications room or near a station radio setup would make a great background.

Do not chew gum, smoke or use foul language or technical terms. Answer every so question so a fifth-grader can understand you. Speak in short sentences, no more than seven to 10 words each. Pause for two or three seconds between each sentence. If the media outlet decides to edit your interview, it will do it at pauses. If you are on camera, do not wear sunglasses.

Answer questions with a sentence instead of yes or no. An interview is a conversation, so make it interesting and informative.

Make sure all the information you provide is correct to the best of your ability. You are the public information officer for your department, the gatekeeper of information. Allow only accurate information to be disseminated. If you are unsure about any information, do not release it. There is nothing wrong with telling a reporter, “I do not have that information available at this time. I will get back to you.”

Future columns will go into more detail on how to conduct an interview for each one of the “big three.”