Congratulations! You’ve landed your exec an interview with that big-shot reporter.
The journalist probably has no idea how much preparation is going on at your end, but your scramble to write a briefing document has just begun.
Gather everything from talking points to links to the reporter’s latest work. If you pried some likely questions out of the reporter, be sure to supply the concordant answers.
“Like everything else in life, the better prepared you are, the better you are at doing a good interview,” says Catherine Bolton, owner of Rock River Communications
and former CEO of the Public Relations Society of America. “The last thing you ever want is for someone in a senior position to feel uncomfortable and unprepared.”
Written briefings are so commonplace in the industry that it’s hard to remember reporters often don’t know such briefings exist.
Oops. That wasn’t meant for you…
Several years ago, Microsoft reportedly goofed and emailed a briefing to Wired Contributing Editor Fred Vogelstein. Wired published it online
“Fred can be a little tricky in interviews,” the briefing states. “He looks deeply for any dirt around whatever topic he is focused on and generally is tight lipped about the direction he will take for his stories, sometimes even misleading you to throw you off. It takes him a bit to get his thoughts across, so try to be patient.”
Microsoft’s embarrassment was corporate America’s gain. The document provides a detailed look at the preparations a company undertakes before engaging in a wrestling match with a reporter.
Here are some tips on preparing a briefing:
1. Start long before the interview.
If your preparation begins with a sprint down the hall to the chairman’s office the very day a reporter calls, you’re too late, Bolton suggests.
“A briefing document is really just a piece of a greater part,” Bolton says. “And that is working with your senior people to make sure that they’re well trained and well educated about the media, so they understand … what a reporter is looking for and what a reporter’s job is.”
2. Learn about the reporter.
“What are the type of stories does the reporter generally cover?” Bolton says. “What type of questions do they ask? Where are they going?”
This type of research is relatively simple to conduct, and it can give your executive a sense of how tough the questioning will be and what kind of tone reporters will use. Are they flippant or straightforward? Do they portray companies like yours as polluters and predators, or as good guys? Are they comfortable with the language of your industry, or would technical answers confuse them?
3. Check social media.
Briefings routinely discuss a reporter’s background and include links to recent stories. But Heather Whaling of Geben Communication
has posted a template for a briefing document
that includes space for crucial information on tweets and other social media, where reporters may relax and weigh their words less carefully.
It’s amazing how cavalier some reporters are when posting on Twitter. That information might come in handy.
3. Include personal details.
A journalist’s annual vacation to the Calaveras County Jumping Frog Jubilee
might seem irrelevant in an interview about your fertilizer export conglomerate. Then again, your CEO might find an opportunity to ask casually: Ever wonder what they do with all that frog waste?
“I find that the spokespeople I work with appreciate having an opportunity to get even a small sense of who a reporter is before the interview,” says Stephanie Walkenshaw, public relations manager at Holland & Hart
. “Many times, it helps them discover a common connection or another way to break the ice, which ultimately puts them at ease and creates some rapport right off the bat.”
4. Write talking points that sound natural.
The interviewee shouldn’t expect simply to parrot corporate slogans, Whaling suggests. Even in a friendly interview, this will annoy reporters—and they’ve probably already looked at your website.
“We craft talking points that are actually useful—not jargon-filled, unnatural speech patterns,” Whaling says. “The talking points are meant to be starters: the key elements the client should convey when speaking with a reporter.”
5. Check the news the day of the interview.
Reporters will be looking for a timely peg, and you must know what’s breaking in your industry and the world at large, Bolton says. By the same token, check out what’s going on with your competitors.
6. Think through the tough questions.
Don’t simply rely on the few vague queries a reporter might email. Put yourself in the mind of the journalist, and coach your bigwig on handling some hardballs.
“My philosophy has always been, ‘Prepare for the worst, and then hope for the best,’” Bolton says.
7. Go through the briefing in person with your executive.
Bolton usually walks through an interview with the bosses ahead of time. As carefully as she prepares, they usually come up with different angles they think a reporter might bring up.
8. Coach your exec to prepare for the physical interview.
Communicators sometimes neglect to think through the physical side of an interview. Will it be a phoner? Or will the reporter be in the exec’s office, munching on jelly beans from the jar on the desk?
Different settings create different dynamics. Bolton suggests that the executive stand up during phone interviews, in order to stretch out and feel more energized. By contrast, nobody feels comfortable looking into a camera and listening to an off-location interviewer through an earpiece. Your bigwig should practice if such interviews might be required.
“It takes an added layer of preparations,” she says.
In the end, all the work is worth it if it helps shape a story.
“When we read an article and see our client’s key messages incorporated throughout the story,” Whaling says, “we know we did our job as PR people in the pitch and follow-up phases. It means our client succeeded at naturally weaving the key messages into the interview.”
Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com.