8 Media Interview Mistakes To Avoid

In the PR agency world, after weeks of fine-tuning messaging, crafting stories and pitching reporters, there’s no better feeling than landing a top media interview for a client. It signals that the overall public relations strategy is on the right track. Most importantly, of course, a media interview will lead to positive coverage – assuming it goes well.
Nailing the interview, however, isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to technology PR opportunities. Even with advance preparation, executives can fumble or leave opportunities on the table. With that in mind, here are eight seemingly small media interview mistakes every spokesperson should avoid, regardless of whether the interview is in person or over the phone.

Showing up late

Here I’m not talking about live television segments, which obviously must happen on time and for which we routinely build in a generous cushion. But for any type of interview, being punctual conveys respect and sets the tone for the conversation. Still, I’ve seen several executives arrive more than a few minutes late to a media sit-down. It’s also easy to run a few minutes late for a phone interview, but that’s even worse, because a phoner is typically squeezed into the journalist’s daily schedule, and he may not have decided whether to do a story. Lateness can annoy the journalist, and in general, it pays to get as much time as possible with a key media contact. The more time, the better the chance of a story, particularly in situations where technical details must be highlighted.

Being unprepared   

Every PR person has been on an interview where the client calls the reporter by the wrong name or confuses their publication with another one. It’s cringeworthy – and easily prevented. In advance of an interview, it’s critical for clients to read or even study the briefing materials their PR team has prepared. A briefing document includes basic information about a journalist as well as deeper insights on their point of view, relevant stories, and more. It ensures clients are prepared and don’t make unforced errors. Outside of a formal media training, every good PR agency team will take an experienced spokesperson through anticipated questions to prepare him for the conversation. It simply takes that extra time commitment.

Referring to other media interviews

For some reason, many executives will tell a reporter that they’re seeing “lots of interest” from the media about a story, or that they’re “speaking to the media to get the story out.” Some will even name the outlets where they’ve had interviews. None of this is helpful. For any media interview, it’s important to treat the interviewer like they’re the only one in the world hearing that perspective. If they feel like the story is being covered by other outlets or that it’s being shopped around, they may choose to take a pass on the story.

Steamrolling the interviewer   

Ideally, an interview should be a back-and-forth, with participation from both sides. Sometimes a journalist’s interview style might be more passive. Yet it’s better for the executive to pause as he or she shares information, particularly when it comes to technology stories. This allows the journalist to absorb the spokesperson’s point of view and areas of expertise and interject questions. I sometimes recommend that the executive pause and ask the interviewer if what they’ve just outlined is clear. That way, they have more cues about how well the journalist if following the conversation and how compelling it is to him.

Having a passive PR host

This one may be controversial, but my clients will tell you that I frequently jump in during interviews. I’ll chime in to communicate a key message or theme, to clarify a point, or to share background. A media interview’s PR host – and every interview should have a PR host, if possible – should not necessarily be a passive participant during an interview. They should be looking for opportunities to support the client where appropriate. Too many PR pros simply “listen in” but fail to direct the conversation. In my view, that helps no one.

“You can email me”

This is another point where professional communicators can disagree, but I discourage direct contact between media and client spokespersons. By the end of an interview, a client may invite the interviewer to email them, but this is risky. It’s the PR team who should be the point of contact for any follow-ups. PR professionals serve several functions, but one of the most important is as “buffer” between client and journalist. If a journalist has a tough question, why should they be able to reach out to an executive directly? I see our role as ensuring that our client addresses the question appropriately, or can avoid it if that’s recommended.

Vomiting marketing jargon.

A media interview is an opportunity for a journalist to get substantive information to support a story. While it’s critical to weave in key themes and messages, speaking like a marketing robot that regurgitates jargon from a messaging document or website will turn off the interviewer. Clients should speak naturally and show their expertise about the topic at hand. This is easier for some than for others, but it’s always possible with advance preparation.

“Is there anything else I should know?”

At the end of every interview, the reporter will ask, “Is there anything else I should know?” While some view this as a formality, for the interviewee, it’s really an opportunity to summarize key points, take stock of what was said and to plug any gaps from the conversation. Too many clients will respond to the “is there anything else” question with, “Nope, that’s it.” Take 30 seconds to end the call as effectively as possible.
These are just a few common media interview missteps or lost opportunities we’ve seen. What are others interviewees should avoid?

PR Guide to Stellar Briefing Books

The practice of public relations is seen as a creative one, but it often depends on meticulous preparation. The PR briefing book is no exception; it’s a simple tool, yet a critical asset for a brand spokesperson to prepare for media interviews. The best briefing books offer a go-to reference and “study guide” so an interviewee has full background on the reporter, the outlet, and the best messaging for the opportunity.

PR guide to stellar briefing books

Make it easy on the eyes

Since the interviewee may be reviewing the document on the fly while in transit or during the interview(s), it should be well structured and easy to read. The when, where, who, and the featured topic should be scannable at the top of the document. If the executive is talking to multiple journalists, the briefing book should have a table of contents, an interview schedule grid, and the top three recommended messages for each exchange (different journalists may focus on different story angles.) Also essential are the reporter’s background information, a description of his publication, and any relevant preferences for the meeting.

The message is the medium

The most important parts of the briefing book are the messaging and questions sections. Although the PR team will have thoroughly prepped the spokesperson, they will also outline potential questions and recommended points for response. It’s generally impossible to predict a journalist’s questions with 100% accuracy, but sample queries can give the spokesperson a degree of comfort that makes for a smoother dialogue. Additionally, briefing documents should include an “expected outcome” outlining the desired next steps.

Briefing books shouldn’t contain sensitive material

In 2016, Gizmodo got ahold of a stray email thread from a Microsoft employee that included some highly detailed “dossiers” about journalists. While not patently nefarious, the documents included a rather deep dive into journalists’ predilections, including a “tips and tricks” section (presumably to handle or outwit reporters) and information on some reporters’ strong personal opinions about competitive products. The article’s author also found it “creepy” that the briefings included photos of the reporters.

We at Crenshaw Communications do not have a “tips & tricks” section, but we do offer headshots  – simply to put a name to a face. We also include the reporter’s three most recent and relevant articles and their Twitter handles, offering a glimpse into the style and beat of the journalists. But it goes without saying that you shouldn’t put anything in a medium briefing book that you wouldn’t want the reporter to see. (On the more nefarious front, in 2015 Columbia Journalism Review uncovered a company called NewsBios that sold reporter dossiers to PR pros. These dossiers contained some genuinely sensitive biographical information like home addresses and names of pets. Not recommended.)

Aside from the document itself, the PR pros will also brief the interviewee on the reporter’s general style based on previous experience. On the other side of the table, the PR contact will often supply the reporter with background on the spokesperson if they’re not acquainted.

Though a relatively small and tactical piece in the PR puzzle, a well-constructed briefing book  is an indispensable media relations roadmap. See last week’s post for a deeper dive into PR facilitation of media interviews.

What’s PR’s Role In The Media Interview?

Should a PR person participate in client media interviews? Most would say yes, but that participation is usually limited. In most cases it means the PR rep helps the client prepare for a media interview opportunity in advance, offers background to the journalist, and accompanies the client to the meeting as a largely silent partner.

Few professionals advocate for interrupting or stopping an interview midstream, or shouting objections like a defense attorney. After all, our goals include maintaining good relations with journalists whom we will inevitably need to approach for future opportunities.

Yet sometimes the lines blur. The job of a PR pro is to help control the narrative. When does that mean controlling an interview? If an experienced spokesperson says too much or blurts out the wrong thing on the record, should the PR rep step in to correct it?

The PR role in media interviews

It’s routine for a PR person to dial in to a phone interview or accompany a client to an in-person meeting. The PR rep can facilitate the exchange by making introductions and setting ground rules, supplying information when needed, prompting if something is missed, and generally acting as a second set of eyes and ears. And in the case of a mistake, a quick correction is invaluable. Most clients welcome the presence of their PR rep, particularly if they’re hyperconscious about speaking on the record. If the client is misquoted or if the interview doesn’t come out well, the PR person was there to help (or to vouch for them.) As for journalists, most accept the presence of a PR professional as long as they stay in their lane and don’t interfere.

When PR derails the interview

There’s that unspoken rule in public relations that PR practitioners should never be part of the story. Our role is behind the scenes, and most professionals are more comfortable there. But there are exceptions. In a famous 2009 episode, televangelist Benny Hinn conducts a rare interview with ABC’s Nightline in which reporter Dan Harris grills him about his lavish lifestyle. Hinn’s PR counsel Ronn Torossian can be heard from off-camera at multiple points during the eight-minute segment, occasionally protesting and urging Harris to mention his client’s newly released book.
Torossian’s conduct would seem embarrassing, and it’s interesting that the network didn’t edit out his interruptions. But in this case his protests give his client the opportunity to play the good cop. Hinn insists on taking reporter Harris’s questions in the spirit of transparency. The exchange actually makes him look like an earnest guy who has nothing to hide. Was there a method to the madness? Who knows?

Celebrity PR as referee is a mixed blessing

Celebrity interviews can be different from those in corporate or brand PR in many ways. There, the publicist often takes the role as interview cop, especially with a reporter they deem overly aggressive. In 2009, Robert Pattinson’s publicist pulled the plug on a short interview with Ryan Seacrest after Seacrest asked a question about the actor’s relationship with then-girlfriend and co-star Kristen Stewart. The publicist was trying to protect the interests of her client, who apparently did not want to talk about his relationship. should pr interfere in media interviewsBut in this instance, the PR pro’s on-camera demeanor made Pattinson look a bit helpless and pampered. After all, personal relationships are part of the game, and if Seacrest didn’t agree to ground rules barring the topic, why wouldn’t he mention it? Pattinson laughs off the awkwardness gracefully, but he should have brushed off the question for himself.

Crisis PR needs a steady partner

In a crisis situation, the media spokesperson may face the toughest of PR challenges. In these cases a misplaced or misunderstood phrase can result in reputation and/or fiscal damage, deepening the existing crisis. Here it makes sense for a trained communications or legal professional to accompany any media spokesperson in a high-stakes interview, and journalists expect it as well. See our earlier post for a PR view of CEO apologies.

Overall a PR professional walks a fine line between skillful management of a situation and undesirable interference. PR people act as facilitators, diplomats, and counselors, and the two most important factors in such situations are typically those that are earned over years of practice — experience and good judgment.

PR Tips For The Big Media Interview

Successful media coverage is a defining component of a successful PR plan, and the most straightforward way to get it is a client interview. These opportunities come in all different shapes and sizes, from casual coffee shop background briefings to in-depth phoners. Though every interview may not carry the same clout as “O’Reilly-Obama,” that doesn’t mean your executive or spokesperson can afford to squander an opportunity to present and position themselves in the best possible light. Here are a few tips to keep in mind to ensure that they knock their interviews out of the park.

Prep. Start preparing your spokesperson by highlighting the story’s objective, the reporter’s background and outlet reach and focus. Gather as much information as you can, including what questions will be asked, how your client’s insight will be used and target audience details. This advance legwork will enable you to focus on appropriate messaging points and present them in a way that is relevant to the audience. Remember, interviews can always shift, but in-depth preparation helps maximize the chances of success.

Practice. The time leading up to a media interview is no time to just go through the motions. Suggest a (or multiple) face-to-face meeting in which you can provide constructive criticism and offer role-playing exercises along the way. Consider using video recording and playback to provide your client with a view of their media skills and areas for improvement.

Perfect the message. Once you have the interview details buttoned up, make sure your client is well-versed on the most relevant messages. Work to identify the top three aspects to highlight and flag for repeated mention during the interview; supporting them with facts, headlines and quotable language to establish your client as an expert in their given field.

Plan for the unexpected. Interviews can veer in any direction and thus may not always present the perfect opportunity to incorporate a point. Help your client keep in mind flagging techniques and phrases to bridge naturally to key points even when the opportunity isn’t obvious.

Person-to-person. Offer strategies to incorporate some of the “personal” into an interview to break the ice or establish some common ground. With advance organization and practice, they can relax a bit and inject an anecdote or ask questions without losing sight of the interview goal. After all, an interview is about relationship-building as much as anything.

How To "Own" A Media Interview

There are few things more exciting to PR agency professionals of all levels than to see a client’s comments in print or digital form. A published interview can be a quick, reactive response to a journalist’s inquiry or the culmination of a long and arduous pitch process. But what if your quotes end up on the (metaphorical) cutting room floor? Here’s how to stay in the picture.

Be first. Or at least, not last. Journalists and bloggers work in a very dynamic environment, so being included in a story can come down to returning a reporter’s call promptly. Being early sometimes beats being brilliant.

Be clear. Don’t speak in buzzwords or acronyms, and don’t use technical jargon unless you explain it succinctly. If you’re being recorded for radio or TV, speak in brief sound bites and “headline” your responses by leading with the important information first, then adding details or supporting points.

Be different. If you feel 80 percent of the reporter’s sources will zig, consider a zag, if that’s appropriate.  Carve out what makes you or your message different and deliver your point of view in a bold and confident way. Being contrarian, if your view is genuine, is one of the best ways to be quoted.

Coin a phrase. Catch phrases and analogies, on the other hand, can break through and ensure your inclusion in a feature or news story.  If you can be the first to use a word like “recreativity” or “frankenstorm” then you’ll probably stay in the story. Colorful pop culture references or visual metaphors will also stand out.

Be nerdy. Nate Silver has made data geeks more appealing than ever. Pull out a couple of compelling statistics, a piece of research, or a factoid to underscore your point. Use wisely and sparingly.

Practice. Don’t assume a media chat is like a sales call (too commercial), but don’t be overly casual either. Your objective is to tell a story about your company or brand. Practice honing your messages and examples with anyone who’ll listen. Even if the interview’s over the phone and you can use notes, it’s a good idea to practice out loud.

Reference your own authority. Because your remarks are often subject to editing, it’s a good idea to reference your credentials occasionally and to mention your company at least once during the first three responses.  But don’t overdo it, or you risk being cut.

When To Kill A Live Interview

This weekend, New York Jets star Darrelle Revis was instructed to hang up during a live radio interview by a member of the team’s PR staff after the conversation started to get testy. It seemed that the host was baiting Revis into saying something he’d regret (which could have hurt the image and selling power of one of the franchise’s top stars, and even the team.)  The PR staffer has since admitted he made a mistake, however, saying he should have simply suggested moving on to a new topic.

When is it truly necessary for a PR person to step in and kill a live media interview? It’s highly debatable, and some may say that it should never be done, given the possible relationship consequences of the “dead air” that can result.  In my opinion, it’s a reasonable option for the following examples.

The client is doing irreparable harm to his career or image (Charlie Sheen)
This is an extreme example, but it was impossible to avoid and hard to look away.  This drugged up version of Charlie Sheen desperately needed a PR person to step in and end the interview. He clearly wasn’t in a healthy state of mind, by his own admission. He ended up losing his job and forever tarnishing his image. If a client is doing career-ending damage during an interview, any good PR pro will step in and pull the plug. (If only it had been that simple.)

The reporter isn’t playing by the rules (Matt Lauer vs. Kanye West)
It could very well be necessary to stop a live interview if the reporter fails to follow a set of pre-determined guidelines and starts discussing off-limit topics. It’s unprofessional and sets your client up to be ambushed unfairly. In the example above, Matt Lauer all but admits doing just that to Kanye West by playing his infamous VMA clip while asking him if he is a racist. It would be tough for just about anyone to answer that question.

The client appears “out of sorts” (Paula Abdul)
This one is pretty obvious.  It’s the PR pro’s job to protect the reputation of the client being interviewed while making sure the correct message gets across. This fluff piece promoting American Idol quickly turned into a joke, and the “Paula is stoned” meme was born.  Whether she was just exhausted, took some bad medication, or was actually intoxicated, the interview never should have been allowed to go as long as it did.

Please add to our list of “when to kill an interview” examples right here.

How To Be Quoted In The Press: Nine PR Tips

One of the mysteries of media relations is the process whereby an interview becomes a feature story. Quality in, quality out, right? Not always. What goes in does not always come through in the final piece. And there are few things more frustrating than offering up your best insights, quotes, and experience, only to be cut out of the piece or damned with a minor mention.

As every PR professional knows, there is never a guarantee of being featured in what we call a “round-up.” Yet there are some guidelines that will maximize your chances of owning the story.

First, know the goals and direction of the interview. Is it for the reporter’s background or on the record? Even if it’s a background interview, it can still be a good use of time since journalists and bloggers tend to return to good sources.  If it’s for attribution, assume you aren’t the only one being interviewed.  Get your competitive juices flowing.

Be prompt. Sometimes even great interviews don’t make it into the story because they blow the editorial deadline. Make sure you know what that deadline is, and build in extra time.  Journalists and bloggers work in a very dynamic environment, so being included in a story can come down to being the first to return a reporter’s call.

Be accessible. Don’t speak in buzzwords, acronyms, or technical jargon unless it’s necessary, and explain key terms succinctly as you go.  If you’re being recorded for radio or TV, speak in brief sound bites and “headline” your responses by leading with the important information first, then adding details or supporting points.

Be contrarian.  If it comes naturally, that is.  If you feel 80 percent of the reporter’s sources will zig, consider a zag in your responses.  Carve out what makes you different and deliver your point of view in a bold and confident way.

Coin a phrase. Catch phrases and analogies, on the other hand, can break through and ensure a successful quote.  If you can be the first to call derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction” (Warren Buffet) or dub a self-imposed Twitter crisis a “Twimmolation” (Time’s James Poniewozik) then you’ll probably own the pull-out quote.

Be colorful. As with the above, consider pop culture references or visual metaphors to make your point.  Instead of saying your product launch is successful, maybe say it’s a hit of “‘Lady Gaga’ proportions.”  A training program isn’t just the best, it’s the “Navy Seals Team 6” of the category.  A competitor’s mission isn’t merely difficult, it’s “changing tires while driving on two wheels.”  You get the idea.

Use statistics. A single, compelling statistic, piece of research, or factoid can make a big difference in an interview, because it adds credibility.  Pull out your big guns, but use them sparingly.

Go deeper. Spend an extra 10 minutes thinking a level beyond your most logical comment to a topical question or issue.  If you can be prepared to share the reasons behind a development, an emerging trend, or a prediction for the future, your quote will likely stand out.

Reference your own authority. Because your remarks are often subject to editing, it’s a good idea to reference your credentials occasionally and to mention your company at least once during the first three responses.  But don’t overdo it, or you will be cut.