For business owners, few activities can match the stress levels prompted by the prospect of being interviewed by a journalist. Often, the anxiety develops for the same reason that some people become apprehensive as a passenger in an airliner—they feel they have no control over the direction of the event nor any way of ensuring their own safety.
The good news is that executives indeed can control their destiny during an interview if they are well armed with knowledge of their subject matter and newsworthy messages to put forth. Anyone, however, can accidentally open the door on a high-pressure interview with a slip or a jab, leading to potentially fatal results for the executive’s reputation.
In our media training program, we have found the following six missteps to be among the most common and often the most damaging, and we offer some simple ways to glide through an interview without tumbling into these mistakes:
- Failing to have a newsworthy message. The whole point of doing a news interview is to communicate your message to your audience. If you enter an interview without a message—just to answer the reporter’s questions—you relinquish control to the reporter, who can spin you in any direction to obtain intriguing quotes. Always have two or three newsworthy messages in your back pocket and, if the questioning starts to go off course, transition to one of those messages to redirect the session toward your objectives.
- Arguing with or accusing the reporter. News media love executives who are entertaining, and since the news desk has the last edit, the publication or broadcast outlet may do its best to make you look and sound entertaining in an outrageous manner if you try to spar with the reporter. The journalist’s job is to ask questions and your job is to respond with information that clarifies and/or positions you and your company properly.
- Lying to the reporter. Never, never lie during an interview—any type of interview. As innumerable figures in Washington can attest, the cover-up is the killer; and when your lie is discovered, it casts considerable doubt on everything else you have said. If you don’t want to or can’t answer a question, bridge to one of your newsworthy messages instead. Don’t feel compelled to answer every question directly. If you can’t answer truthfully, then switch to a related topic that you can discuss more comfortably.
- Failing to anticipate the questions the reporter is likely to ask. Just because a reporter is interviewing you on the floor of an auto show, it doesn’t mean his questions will be related to the auto industry. He can—and will—ask you anything, because he views the interview simply as an opportunity to talk with you and cover any subject that may be topical. Before the interview, always review media reports for issues, trends and “breaking news” developments that may relate to your business or industry. Those are the topics about which you are most likely to be asked. Then consider how you would answer questions about each of those areas and develop messages where needed for those questions, along with responses to questions that do relate directly to the purported subject matter of the interview.
- Saying, “No comment.” Depending on the circumstances, when you say no comment, the reporter may translate that as an admission of guilt. At the least, you are relinquishing your chance to tell your version of the story. Again, if you can’t answer the question, bridge to a message you can offer—even better if it’s a newsworthy message on the same general topic as the question.
- Going off the record. Your best rule of thumb: if you don’t want something reported, don’t tell it to a reporter, under any circumstances. The reporter’s loyalty is to his or her news outlet, not to you, and the trust you thought existed between you and the journalist may be violated if the story is good enough. Moreover, remember that journalists can report anything they hear—anything you say before the interview begins (by the way, it begins with your first words to the reporter) or long after it’s over, in a restaurant or a theater lobby where the reporter may overhear your conversation.
By preparing for the interview, having your purpose well in mind and treating the reporter with respect, you’re likely to have a much safer journey as a newsmaker.
— Steve Friedman is the director of marketing communications at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.