This article was originally published on PR Daily in March 2016.
Speaking to the news media can be a tricky business.
This is especially true if you are not a professional communicator or former journalist—or possess expertise in media relations and strategic communications. Moreover, if you’re the CEO of an organization, it’s your responsibility to best represent it. You become the face of the organization.
Whether a chief—or another spokesman—goes on camera or streams on Skype, he or she is sending a clear message on behalf of the entire organization. You might speak for an organization which employs hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of people, has a large consumer base, and has a well defined brand image to protect and maintain.
A reporter might be aggressive during an interview and set traps along the way, but you don’t have to fall prey to them.
Follow these steps—which are essential for executive leadership, but apply for those down the corporate ladder—to ensure a successful interview:
Prepping for the interview
1. Agree to the interview’s focus before your appearance. Request a pre-interview phone call with a reporter to discuss the parameters and terms of the interview, such as what type of attribution you will use (on-the-record, on background, etc.).
You might also want to request advance questions. Although many news media outlets prohibit reporters from providing questions in advance, not all do. It never hurts to ask, because the more prepared you are, the more likely your interview will be successful.
2. Provide substantive background information. This is especially relevant if no pre-interview exchange has been arranged. The information will serve as a preface to the main points you plan on making during the media interview.
Not all reporters are subject matter experts. Therefore, it’s your job to help educate them about the issues from your organization’s standpoint.
Providing background can help deflect negative or loaded questions in advance, as well as set the stage to make your case in the strongest and most persuasive manner.
3. Anticipate likely questions and answers in advance. This is essential if the reporter rejects your request for advance questions or fails to provide appropriate information about the angle and focus of his or her story.
Think about what points and counterpoints you want to make. What headline would you like to see?
Don’t “wing it” in an interview, or the resulting story may cause more harm than good for your organization and its brand image.
4. Draft talking points. Consult with your organization’s legal, policy and communications experts during this step. Include at least two or three major points that you want reflected in the resulting story.
Putting your points down on paper can serve as a reference during and after the interview, in addition to enhancing your focus and comfort level.
5. Develop proof points. These include statistics and anecdotes to support your main talking points.
Don’t just explain your points to reporters; provide factual evidence or tell a story to reinforce the validity of your main message.
6. Establish a rapport with the reporter. Find out some personal information about the journalist interviewing you. How long has he or she been with the media outlet? What was the last story he or she reported?
Any sincere praise or recognition you can offer to paves the way for smooth relations. Perhaps there are some common interests you share or related personal background information—such as where you grew up or went to school. This can also help lay the foundation for positive media relations.
7. Practice . If you’re a native New Yorker (like me) you may recall that this is the answer to the hypothetical question: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
Rehearse your answers and do a mock interview with your organization’s communications team. If you are conducting a broadcast interview, record your responses or practice in front of a mirror.
Remember that some communications are non-verbal. Avoid awkward or embarrassing physical gestures—such as ducking out of the camera to grab a water bottle and then gulping it down, as Sen. Marco Rubio once did during his GOP response to a State of the Union address.
During the interview
8. Take control. Take charge of the interview before the reporter does it.
Don’t let the journalist dictate the interview’s agenda. Deflect questions you don’t want to answer by reiterating your main points. Repetition is important, even if you sound like a broken record.
Don’t feel compelled to respond to negative or loaded questions. Rather, respond with a deflecting statement, then repeat your key talking and proof points. Some examples of deflecting statements include:
“Let’s look at this issue from a broader perspective.”
“There is an equally important concern here.”
“Let’s not forget the underlying problem at hand.”
“That point may have some validity; however, let’s look at this a different way.”
9. Ask that a question be repeated or restated. This is especially important if questions are unclear, loaded or surprising. You might need a few seconds to formulate your answer if unprepared for the question.
You can also give your answer a second time if new thoughts and points surface as the interview progresses. To repeat or expand on an answer already given, use some of the following phrases:
“In addition to what I noted before…”
“On second thought, let me provide a more complete response.”
“Please scratch what I said earlier, what I meant was…” (use this for non-live interviews only).
“Let’s go over your second question again. I want to point out that…”
10. Maintain eye contact and avoid distracting gestures. Focus on either the interviewer (preferably) or the camera—but not both. Do not glance back and forth or shift your eyes from side to side.
Do not excessively talk with your hands, as this can look defensive and awkward.
If necessary, keep your hands tightly clasped on your lap.
Maintain focus and appear confident, calm and collected. Reporters can detect weakness like sharks smelling blood in the water. Don’t give a reporter bent on sensationalism the chance to go for the kill.
11. If necessary, walk away. If the other steps fail and a reporter relentlessly pounds at you with highly negative questions during a non-live interview—despite a press aide interrupting to get him or her to move on—you might have to stop the interview.
Don’t give into biased questions and provide the answers the reporter wants, at your expense, because that can be detrimental to your message and brand.
Rely on the expert judgment of the communications aide who is staffing the interview, but as a last resort, you can call off the interview and walk away.
If the reporter broke an advance interview agreement—such as continually asking questions you previously agreed wouldn’t be asked or engaging in unprofessional conduct—then the reporter does not deserve an interview. The story is likely to be negative anyway, and you show backbone and self-respect.
Adhere to these points and you’ll be ready to give the best interview for yourself, your organization and your brand’s image.
David B. Grinberg is an independent writer and strategic communications advisor with 25 years in the White House, Congress and national news media. Connect with him on Twitter, Medium, beBee and LinkedIn. A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.