Most PR teams work hard to make sure our client media interviews go off without a hitch. Yet there are the occasional briefings that for one reason or another may require extra preparation. Maybe they revolve around a sensitive subject, or possibly the company spokesperson is inexperienced. For example, a client executive could be speaking as an external expert on a topic related to government regulation while avoiding naming their own clients or specific work experience. At other times we must prepare to navigate the rules and nuances of a funding announcement.
While most qualified media spokespeople are well-versed in what they should discuss in an interview, it is up to the PR exec to manage the conversations with a positive outcome in mind. There are even times when a PR rep must step in and course-correct. Here are some tips for ensuring a comfortable interview for all parties and avoiding real-time intervention.
Confirm specifics ahead of time
Someone wise once said, “the best defense is a good offense.” And when it comes to managing conversations with media this is certainly true. By doing the groundwork to ensure that media understand what the client spokesperson can / cannot cover well ahead of time, PR professionals can make sure that briefings suit a client’s expertise and stay focused on the agreed-upon topics. A legal or risk-management expert may be able to speak about how a new anti-money laundering regulation impacts financial institutions overall, but not how it affects a specific bank or client company, for example. Rigorous preparation will enable a conversation to go more smoothly and will help prevent awkward questions that could result in a premature end to the discussion.
Pick the right spokesperson
We sometimes need to arrange an interview within a short time, especially if it’s in response to a breaking news story. But it’s imperative that the right spokesperson — one that is both a subject-matter expert and media-savvy — is selected for each media briefing, especially for sensitive topics. For example, a CEO may be the go-to spokesperson for many questions, if a media-facing VP has more background in a given area of cybersecurity or compliance, they are likely the better option. It’s essential to take the time to work with client-side contacts about who is the best fit for a given topic area instead of defaulting to the most commonly used internal expert.
Reconfirm ground rules at the top of the call
It is always helpful — especially when it comes to “on background” and “off the record” conversations — to confirm the framework of the conversation at the top of the call to prevent any crossed wires. If there is a misunderstanding, and a journalist would need “on the record” sources instead, simply ask to end the interview and reconvene offline in order to discuss particulars, iron out wrinkles and plan for connecting sources with the journalist on terms that may work for both.
Role-play ahead of time
All PR teams understand the value of formal media training, and it’s often useful. But in advance of an interview about tricky topics, it’s wise to do a little role-playing in advance of a specific media conversation. It’s a good way to spot common traps, like repeating a negative in a response to an adversarial question (“No, our services are not overpriced” is a less effective answer than, “Our prices represent a good value for our expertise”” for example.)
Know when to jump in
Even with the framework of a conversation laid out and before and at the top of a call, journalists may still ask questions that stray from the planned discussion roadmap. Some argue that it’s not our place to interrupt the discussion or interfere if things take a turn. But when the stakes are high, the PR person should feel empowered to remind journalists of areas that are off-limits for discussion. If a reporter balks, ask to end the interview early and follow up offline to try to have the spokesperson meet the journalist’s needs without pushing boundaries.
Additionally, if a client spokesperson appears to be stumbling, a good PR rep will jump in briefly to redirect the conversation by offering up a relevant messaging point, data nugget, or example that helps get the conversation back on track. If a journalist continues to push a client source off track and into sensitive territory, politely ask to conclude the interview and offer to circle back offline to discuss.