I don’t think there’s anyone who questions the power of public relations. (And by public relations I’m referring to media coverage, primarily with legacy media, although many independent bloggers have just as much influence these days.)
Not long ago I wrote about the media frenzy around Royal Bank’s plans to bring in foreign workers
to replace 45 people in its IT department. It started when one of the displaced employees went to the media to tell his side of the story. He was articulate, confident, and strategic, hitting all the right messages.
He talked about the legality of what RBC was doing, the impact on the people in his department, and the impact on his own family. It was a sad story that pretty much went viral until RBC chief executive Gord Nixon issued an apology and promised that the 45 employees would all find comparable employment at RBC.
So there was a happy ending, entirely as a result of pressure from the media.
The importance of preparation
Media coverage is powerful, but how do you ensure that media coverage about your business is positive and that your spokesperson doesn’t mess up?
There’s a clip from the mid-1970s “The Bob Newhart Show” often used in media training
to demonstrate the importance of preparing for a media interview. In the clip, Dr. Hartley, a Chicago psychologist played by Bob Newhart, appears on a local TV morning show.
Hartley is unprepared for the interview and stumbles his way through with much hilarity. Here’s one exchange between Dr. Hartley and Ruth Corley, the journalist:
Corley: Dr. Hartley, according to a recently published survey, the average fee for a private session with a psychologist is $40.
Hartley: That’s about right.
Corley: Right? I don’t think it’s right. What other practitioner gets $40 an hour?
Hartley: My plumber.
Corley: Plumbers guarantee their work. Do you?
Hartley (aside): I don’t understand why all of a sudden…
Corley: I asked if you guarantee your work.
Hartley: I can’t guarantee that each person who walks through the door is going to be cured.
Corley: You mean you ask $40 an hour and you guarantee nothing?
Hartley: I validate.
Clearly Dr. Hartley arrived for his interview without prior media training, with no agenda of his own, and with no understanding of the interview’s real focus.
So how do you avoid a similar fiasco?
Three principles of media interview preparation
There are three important disciplines we teach clients in media training sessions:
1. Message development
are the foundation of most effective communications programs. They are 20-second sound bites that tell your story in an interesting way. The media is not looking for Shakespeare; messages should be succinct, jargon-free sentences using easy-to-understand language.
Key messages are important in interviews, because media platforms allow for only a few spokesperson quotes. For example, a 15-minute interview usually includes just two or three of the spokesperson’s sentences. Knowing your messages ahead of time helps ensure your important points don’t end up on the cutting-room floor.
2. Interview control
Controlling the interview begins with knowing the journalist’s agenda. Never jump into an interview cold. Before agreeing to any interview, ask the journalist a few pointed questions so you can understand what the article or segment will cover:
• What is the focus of the interview and the report you’re preparing?
• Whom else are you interviewing on the subject?
• Will the interview be recorded, or will it air live (for TV or radio)?
Always be courteous and convey accessibility. Once you qualify the interview and agree to move ahead, take the time to prepare properly.
3. Message delivery
Message delivery is all about body language and the way you answer questions. If you’re a spokesperson, you need to be confident and poised, especially for TV interviews.
The way you stand is important, with both feet firmly planted on the ground. So is the way you sit, leaning in slightly and engaging with the journalist.
Once the interview starts there are additional ways to control the interview:
• Listen carefully to the questions before answering them
• Refuse to speculate
• Avoid repeating the negative
• Introduce the subjects you want to talk about in a natural way without being overly promotional
It’s not difficult to ensure a positive experience with media interviews as long as you remember to prepare with key messages, take control of the interview, and deliver your responses with confidence and poise.
A version of this article first appeared on Polaris PR’s blog.