PR and communications consultant Julia Kendrick provides her top 10 tips for successful media interviews.
Many practitioners regard media interviews with a sense of dread – there is often a fear of being misquoted or ‘tripped up’ by unforeseen or difficult questions. However, when handled correctly, press interviews can be a key building block of your professional profile, helping boost visibility, showcase your credentials and pave the way to future success. Media training is a critical tool in your arsenal and with some simple preparation you can mitigate the risks of press interviews and build your confidence.
Much of the ‘fear factor’ of press interviews revolves around the unknown – what is the journalist going to ask? What if they ask something you’re not prepared for? The key is to mitigate as much of this in advance as possible – preparation and practising your techniques will give you confidence. Don’t be afraid to ask the journalist key information in advance:
What do they want to talk to you about? Get as much detail as possible on what they’re looking for and what information they already have
What questions do they plan to ask you? Ask for these on an email so you have a written record and can plan out your responses
Are they speaking to anyone else? If so, research their backgrounds and anticipate what their angles/points of view might be
What is the broader context for the interview? It’s always essential to know the broader context within which your opinion is being framed
What format will the interview take and how long will it be?
Bear in mind, while you can always ask in advance for the planned interview questions, these are unlikely to be ‘set in stone’ and you should expect that the interviewer may take a different approach, or include some different questions on the day. See this as a base to build from and do your prep work around it – rather than relying on a rigid blueprint of what the conversation will entail.
Research the publication’s audience demographic so you can adapt your style and make responses relevant. For example, an interview with a journalist who works for a trade publication will want you to answer using your regular medical terminology, but a consumer magazine journalist will prefer layman’s terms. Consider: what is this audience likely to think and care about or understand? By putting yourself in the audience’s shoes, you will be able to map out additional questions or situations that may emerge during the interview and thereby prepare yourself more effectively, rather than being ‘caught out’ by an unexpected question or angle from the journalist.
There is a critical misconception that you are simply there just to answer questions – but this is not the case! You are there to put across YOUR messages at the same time. As the interviewee, you must ensure you are crystal clear on what your key messages and desired outputs of the interview are. Ask yourself – what do you want the audience to know, understand, remember or do? For example, this could be educating the audience on the main symptom they should look out for if they are experiencing a certain filler complication, perhaps visit a specific website for more information, or sign up to support a charitable campaign. Keep your key messages short, relevant and repeated – no more than three per interview (irrespective of the interview length) and aim to repeat each message three times (3x3). This technique is far more effective for audience retention than five to 10 individual messages, which only get mentioned once and are likely to be forgotten instantly. Equally, I find the journalist is more likely to include your key messages if they are clear and repeated.
This is the critical tool to get from what you’ve been asked, to what you want to say. This is something usually covered in proper training where you learn to use various ‘bridging phrases’ to move the conversation on from an unhelpful or irrelevant question and allow you to introduce or restate your key messages.1 However, be warned, this does not mean you should ignore a journalist’s question! The key to success is to answer the question factually and briefly – yes or no – then quickly BRIDGE to steer the conversation back to the points you want to make (i.e. your key messages).
Examples of bridging phrases include:
During your interview, try to relax. Be confident in yourself and your expertise – this is why you are being interviewed in the first place. Breathe deeply and take your time to answer to the questions – this also helps avoid ‘umming and aahing’. Be aware of your tone – if discussing a contentious issue, or receiving ‘negative’ questions, make sure you respond with a calm, considered approach. Make sure to stop once you’ve answered the question/delivered your message – silence or ‘dead air’ is the cue for the journalist to ask more questions, don’t feel you have to fill the gap!
This applies regardless of interview format – TV, radio, face-to-face or telephone. Be aware of your body posture, hand movements and facial expressions. You need to portray confidence and authority – so sit comfortably. Remember BBC – bottom in back of chair – and keep movement to a minimum; no jiggling hands or feet! Hand gestures can help you make a point, but don’t overdo it. If you tend to ‘talk with your hands’, try folding them in your lap as otherwise this can look distracting on camera. Make the interview work for you – try standing up on telephone interviews to feel more confident and help you focus.
When undergoing a video interview, try to avoid wearing fussy patterns or small prints such as dog tooth or geometric shapes as these play havoc with the TV cameras. You should avoid green if there is a green screen involved, as the colours will get picked up on the camera and your body will morph into the background. Instead, wear bright singular colours that ‘pop’, or complementary colour tones – avoid black or white as these may drain colour from your face. Make sure your clothes are comfortable as you need to feel confident and smartly turned out. If on camera, avoid bulky or excessive jewellery/accessories as they will be distracting in regards to the sound, and of course don’t wear anything too short (skirts or trouser legs) – as you may be sat on a low sofa or seat. Make sure your hair isn’t hanging over your face – it will distract you, and the viewers.
Being comfortable in yourself and your surroundings will help boost your confidence and make for a successful interview experience. To help establish your comfort zone:
So, what should you do if there is a negative or aggressive question? Remain in control and remember what you are there to talk about and revert back to your three key messages. Keep to your bridging technique – deal with the question quickly – yes or no – then bridge to what you want to say. A key mistake is to repeat negative language, even to disagree, for example:
Journalist: “Is this a disaster?” Interviewee: “No this isn’t a disaster”
All the audience remembers is the word ‘disaster’. Instead, counter by saying, “No I don’t agree”, “That isn’t accurate” or “That is untrue.”
Importantly, don’t get drawn into speculation as you will likely end up getting tangled. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know or aren’t able to comment on something as it is not within your area of expertise. Simply bridge to a factual overview such as, “Let me give you the facts...” or “Here’s what I DO know.” Never say, “No comment.” This is a cliché and is likely to make you look evasive or uncooperative.
You should also remember that there’s no such thing as ‘off the record’ and remain focused after the interview ends. The microphones may still be live and you wouldn’t want an unguarded comment to be picked up.
Lying (whether intentional or not) is the quickest way to destroy your reputation and be blacklisted by press. No journalist will risk their professional integrity if they can’t rely on you – if you make a mistake or speak an untruth, correct it quickly and clearly. Remember your goal – to get your messages across and to make this a success to pave the way for future coverage opportunities!
Press interviews can be a huge opportunity to build your profile and visibility, with potential future successes in terms of clinic revenue and additional media engagements. By taking the time to prepare and mastering some key techniques, such as bridging and key messages, you should be able to handle media interviews competently and confidently.
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