Companies hire PR firms for all sorts of reasons, but one of the most common is for media relations.  Because of the nature of their business, PR firms can differ significantly from one shop to another – industry knowledge, expertise, resources and relationships are all major considerations when comparing one to another. You probably shouldn’t hire a tech PR firm to promote salad dressings, for instance.

However, the fundamentals of an interview with a reporter do not change significantly from interaction to interaction and command of these fundamentals should be thought of as a skill.  Skill is different than talent. You need practice to develop a skill.  You are not born with skills.

If you can’t call on a PR firm to help you practice and prepare, use the following tips as a guide.  Whatever you do, do yourself and the reporter a favor — don’t wing it.  Like any other business relationship, your reputation is everything.  Suppliers who miss deadlines lose contracts. Poorly engineered software will earn the disdain of consumers.

When dealing with the media, the quality of your interview is the currency of your reputation. And just like other professional circles, journalists change positions and share their experiences with one another.  A reporter’s time is among their most valuable resources and nothing is more aggravating than a poorly prepared spokesperson. Don’t think of interviews as a transaction; if it’s worth your time to have the first interview, it’s likely the publication is of value to your business and therefore you’ll want more interviews in the future.

1.  Be available

  • When a story is breaking, the available source gets heard – be available to answer media inquiries.
  • Respect the reporters’ deadlines and be on time for interviews.
  • Return reporters calls as soon as possible, even if to schedule an interview at a later time.

2. Prepare for the interview

  • Get as much clarification as possible on the story angle and question set.
  • Review past stories the reporter has written to get a sense of tone/style and level of topic knowledge.
  • Prepare a list of likely questions and how you want to respond to them.

3. Maintain the appropriate attitude during the interview

  • Reporters are talking with you in order to do their job; you may develop rapport but they are not your “friends.”
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so, and offer to provide the information post-interview. Likewise, if you can’t answer a question because it involves proprietary information, say so.
  • Be as responsive as possible, and respect their deadlines.

4. Focus on the story you need to tell, be credible and honest

  • Use declarative statements followed by supporting comments.
  • Be wary of false premises in questions (it’s a telltale sign that something has been misconstrued); correct them immediately in your response.
  • Don’t over talk the question. Pause after a sentence or two to determine the reporter’s engagement.
  • If you don’t understand the question, say so and ask for clarification.

5. Know the basic rules of engagement

  •  Never say “no comment” – responding to a question with “no comment” suggests you have something to hide, even if you don’t, and is an invitation to the reporter to dig around for negative news. Respond instead with an appropriate message.
  • Never make a comment “off the record” – nothing is off the record; if you say it, it can be quoted or referenced.
  • Never ask to see a story before it is published – this is really more a rule of etiquette; asking suggests you are inexperienced and naïve. You can offer to be available for fact checking or answer any additional questions.

6. Be interesting and engaging, not controversial

  • Generally, an interview should be a fun, rewarding experience for you and the reporter. Be prepared to provide colorful anecdotal quotes to clarify your offering and position in the market.
  • Deliver authoritative commentary to build your company’s and your own credibility.
  • Avoid making negative comments about anything. Respond to questions regarding the competition, changes or events in the market space and other potential controversial issues neutrally.

— Kevin Sangsland is an account director at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley and 2011 chair of PRSA’s technology section.