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What Master Interviewers Can Teach PR People

PR.mediaInterviewBecause we spend time preparing clients for meetings with journalists, PR people tend to study media interviews from the view of the person getting the questions. During this crazy political primary season, interview-watching is a spectator sport, usually starring Donald Trump.

Yet something changed this week. Trump has had interviews with conservative Wisconsin radio personality Charlie Sykes, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and MSNBC’s liberal Chris Matthews. Though the journalists are very different, each interview was like a mini-master class in political interviewing style. In every case, the reporter managed to break through the candidate’s bluster to reveal more than most previous interviews put together.

In this case Trump’s struggles may stem from his attempt to broaden his appeal and therefore branch out in accepting interviews that he normally wouldn’t agree to. And most “normal” media interviews – like the ones public relations people set up every day – need not be adversarial. But analyzing each exchange got me thinking about first-rate interviewing skills that most PR people and their clients should cover in their own media prep sessions.

Create a relaxed environment. Every skilled interviewer starts with small talk, ideally flavored with a little common ground or flattery. They know that a relaxed and engaged subject will offer better responses, and that a friendly demeanor will play better with the audience if there is one. But those being interviewed should be aware of this, and of the fact that, unless an interviewer is rushed for time, he’s likely to start out easy and move to the tougher questions later. It’s not over ’til it’s over.

Match your style to the subject. Chris Matthews was particularly effective in questioning Trump because – like the candidate – he’s naturally bombastic. He badgers, meanders, and interrupts; in fact, he was so relentless that he was able to press Trump on his views about abortion, which resulted in a tangled response that had to be walked back by the campaign by the time the interview aired. Trump’s error here was being unprepared.

For other interview occasions, the challenge may be different. Badgering won’t work to draw out a reserved spokesperson or pull a colorful quote out of a canned speech. One reporter that I worked with confessed a trick for opening up reluctant subjects. She would pretend to end the interview, start to pack up, then act as if she’d remembered one last question, essentially starting fresh with a slightly less guarded interviewee.

Share your goals. Reporters don’t have to hide their motives; in fact, the journalist who explains what she’s going for in an interview will probably get a better and more authentic response from the subject. At the end of the day, you both want an interesting interview and an engaged audience.

Master the follow-up. Every good journalist knows that it’s crucial to follow-up, and follow-up again, but there’s an art to not appearing hectoring. Broadcast journalists sometimes temper their style when politicians segue into talking points without addressing the question because they don’t want to appear disrespectful on camera. Anderson Cooper did a good job with Trump in pinning him down even though he was challenged by Trump’s frequent interruptions and diversions into portions of his stump speeches.

Ask why. This is a useful and legitimate way to follow up, and it often elicits a better quote. It’s also an effective way to get at more personal motives or emotions, or to go deeper than a rehearsed sound bite that’s been used many times before. I don’t see it as dangerous for the interview subject, but it’s useful to practice an interview by going beyond a series of first-line questions.

Don’t fear the silence. In media prep sessions, I always tell clients not to feel compelled to fill a silent period during an interview. Staying quiet is a common technique used by journalists to encourage people to keep talking even when their answer has run its course. The impulse to keep talking to fill an awkward silence is a strong one, but the best response may be a smile.

Recap the story. We often prepare clients for interviews about technology issues where they may not realize they’re going into too much detail or using language not familiar to regular people. That’s why it’s helpful to recap the “story” to the person being interviewed to give them a sense of an average person’s takeaway and offer a chance to correct or simplify. With political candidates, it can also make them realize what’s inconsistent or disingenuous about a response.

Add a question as an afterthought. Nearly anyone being interviewed is on their guard, so good interviewers often save their toughest or best questions for the end. They may signal that the session is about to wrap up, wait for the person to relax, and fire away. But by the same token, an interview subject can volunteer to answer the question that wasn’t asked, and a good journalist will often welcome the opening. Many reporters we work with won’t conclude an interview without inquiring if there’s anything else that should have been asked.

For anyone who is the subject of a media interview, it bears repeating that the interview isn’t over until it’s over. And even then, there may be follow-up, fact-checking, editing, and adding, so don’t exhale until you see it printed, posted, or broadcast.

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