You don’t have to be Anthony Weiner to feel the media is not exactly on your side. But here’s the thing: Most journalists aren’t out to get you, either. They have a job to do, pure and simple, and your challenge is to recognize their needs and tactics and use them to get your own message out.
When we’re coaching clients on handling the media, we provide strategies that are tailored to the context (are you breaking news? Attempting damage control?) as well as to the kind of outlet you’re dealing with. Yet while every situation requires unique tactics, there are a number of tips that will apply to most of your media interviews. Here are some of those truisms to help you get the coverage you want.
1. Provide the story
As a rule, journalists aren’t out to puff you up or bring you down. They’ve got an editor or producer hammering at them to deliver a story by a certain deadline, and you can be sure they will knock out that story. You can boost the odds that this story will be the one you want if you offer up the narrative yourself.
In every kind of media today, shrinking staffs have meant journalists are over-worked and grateful for anything that helps them out. Unless they have decided on the story even before interviewing you—and that kind of journalism is a separate problem—they’re open to your influence. So if possible, don’t just present facts to the reporter but put them in a larger narrative context. Some storylines can be irresistible: success against huge odds, courage in the face of political pressures, protecting the powerless, and so on. Just make it a genuine story, so that you not only earn the journalist’s gratitude but trust.
2. Know who you’re talking to
I mean this in two ways. First, it’s critical to know the track record of the journalist interviewing you. If they’re a print reporter or a blogger, it’s a simple matter to check their past stories online for any biases they’re likely to bring to the table. It’s harder to gauge the biases that might come into play during a TV interview, as multiple producers could have a hand in the formulation of questions. Even so, study clips of the correspondent or interviewer. This upfront intel can prepare you for questions you might not otherwise expect.
Also realize that you are not really speaking to the journalist in front of you but to their audience. The journalist is a mere conduit for the key information you need to get across. That’s why we spend so much time with clients on their message points and how to bridge to them effectively, regardless of the journalist’s questions. Always remember you are not there to politely answer a reporter’s questions or impress her with your knowledge; you are there to communicate with the readers or viewers—the reason you wanted the interview in the first place.
3. Stay on the record
Put a better way, perhaps: always assume you are on the record. Reporters will often tell you that your answers will be “on background” or “of the record.” But the fact is, if you provide them with some extremely juicy information, they’ll find a way to source it elsewhere and use it. You’ll wind up furious that they ran with it, especially if colleagues and higher-ups assume that the info had to have come from you.
The journalist will throw out the excuse that he kept his word—he technically got the goods from someone else and your name is not attached to his reporting. Gee, thanks. Rather than regret what winds up in print or on air, just stay on the record and say only those things you wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the Washington Post.
4. Don’t whiff the softballs
Sometimes clients will want to spend all their energy preparing for tough questions and not bother with so-called easy ones. But it can be even more damning to flub a question that everyone thinks you should be able to knock out of the park. That happened to Ted Kennedy in 1979, when Roger Mudd interviewed him during the Senator’s campaign for president. Mudd asked the most basic question of all: “Why do you want to be president?”
Kennedy was more than ready to discuss the economy, health care, and a number of other things. He just hadn’t thought about the simple question Mudd asked, and he stumbled his way through a rambling response that made no sense to viewers. The collapse of his campaign began at that moment. So prepare for the stickiest questions, absolutely—but never forget that every question is both an opportunity and a potential trap.
5. Never pretend to be an expert
It’s human nature to want to strut your knowledge, and the temptation grows when you are trying to impress a journalist and their audience. But it is far better to acknowledge that a question is outside your expertise than to take a guess and get it wrong. As difficult as it’s always been to “walk it back,” it’s nearly impossible now that your mistakes live forever online. So don’t let your ego get you entangled in false assertions that your opponents will feast on. The person who realizes he doesn’t need to be the brainiest person in the room may be the smartest one there.
6. Don’t restart the conversation
Avoid restarting the conversation. Sometimes at the end of an interview, a reporter or correspondent will say, “Do you have anything else you’d like to add?” That may just be a considerate way of giving you the last word. Or it could mean that a not-so-friendly journalist realizes he’s asked his last question and hasn’t yet nailed you. By getting you talking a bit more, he’s hoping you’ll finally step in it and give him the story he’s dying for. In either case, it’s not your responsibility to add anything beyond the points you set out to make.
Take the opportunity to reiterate those messages, especially if you think you haven’t gotten them across as effectively as you’d like. This response will show that you understand the most fundamental lesson of all: No matter who’s asking the questions, it is always your interview.
Bill Beaman is founder of OnPoint Strategies, a marketing and communications firm with numerous clients in the political arena.