For PR pros, landing an on-air interview for a C-suite executive is a big deal. It’s a great way to position a company in front of a large audience, and it’s typically a chance to convey a point of view on a business topic or issue. But what if an executive isn’t fully prepared?
Unless they’re accustomed to giving public interviews and speaking to journalists frequently, there’s a good chance that even senior execs will need some coaching in advance of a key interview. There are several things you can do to ensure that things run smoothly.
Ask for questions ahead of time…but don’t count on it
Media have different policies about sharing questions ahead of an interview. In general, most don’t. However, since on-air interviews are a different type of exchange, some producers are more flexible and may share the questions beforehand, and they will of course offer details about the interview’s direction. But even if you do receive some advance questions, be mindful that they can change. Broadcast interviewers are famous for pivoting in the moment to ensure their interviews are topical. If there’s a relevant breaking news story on the day of the interview, for example, it may come up. Don’t trust that the questions or even the direction you receive are set in stone, because they probably aren’t.
Develop the interview’s messaging
Once the interview is set and you’ve provided as much information as possible, schedule a conversation to talk about the interview and to work out the messaging. If the segment is centered around breaking news, there might not be much time to link up, so it’s up to the PR pro to prep the spokesperson within a short time. It’s important not to overdo the messaging or put words in the spokesperson’s mouth. Simply spend a few minutes focusing on two or three of the most important points. The spokesperson should feel free to change any corporate-speak or buzzwords into ordinary language that reflects how normal people speak. If stuck, they can bring the interview back to the key points by flagging them with appropriate phrases like, “the key thing to remember here is…” or, if surprised by a question, “I don’t know about that, but what I can tell you is…”
Advise them to speak slowly and naturally
The best on-air interviews are free-flowing and relaxed, yet professional and insightful. One good rule to share is to speak as they would with a family member or friend who is attentive, but not as familiar with the issues discussed as an insider. It should feel like the interview is just two people having a conversation. The best exchanges are educational, allowing the person being questioned to impart valuable information or a relevant point of view. They should also answer without a lot of extraneous information, which can be left for a follow-up question.
Prep for the open-ended question
Sometimes a general question (“Tell me about your career”) can be tricky because the temptation may be to start at the beginning and recite a chronology of events or an overly detailed, rambling response. This is where advance coaching for reverting to a few key fact-based messages can be very helpful. Any top executive, of course, will be ready to discuss the organization and its value proposition, but it’s also helpful to rehearse responses to broad questions about the industry, the business climate, and one’s own background. Remember, topicality is key for broadcast interviewers, so they should lead with the latest and greatest.
Remind them to reference their expertise
Typically an executive is invited to an interview because they’re seen as a subject-matter expert. It’s helpful to convey that expertise through examples and references to the interviewee’s training or experience. These might include supporting data, strong statements of fact and opinion, or references to the experience that informs their expertise, e.g. 20 years as a research scientist, or three successful startup businesses. Acting confident during the interview and providing well-researched and thought-out information will show the interviewer and folks watching that they’re a valuable information resource.
Don’t worry about time delays
In the age of Zoom interviews, it’s natural for there to be a slight time lag between the host’s question and the interviewee’s response. It’s easy to accidentally speak over the interviewer, so if it happens, it’s no big deal. Counsel your executive to expect a few glitches, and to simply continue speaking if they happen to overlap, rather than stopping and apologizing. No host likes to interrupt their guest.
Help them to “think in quotes”
For TV, shorter, punchier responses are strongly preferable to longer, circuitous statements. It’s best to prepare 7-8 second quotable soundbites. It’s also important to lead with the strongest quotes, since live interviews can be cut short, and editors who cut taped exchanges will sometimes grab the first usable quote they find. It’s also helpful to incorporate part of the question into the response, assuming the listener hasn’t heard the full question. Senior execs should never respond to questions with a simple “yes” or “no,” as this makes for a dull interview and doesn’t advance the organization’s story.
Broadcast interviews are a great way to give a client exposure and credibility by weighing in on current or hot topics. The above are some measures that PR folks can take to ensure they get the most out of these opportunities, with hopes of being asked back in the future.