The main purpose of getting active in the blogosphere or digital media generally is to get your brand or service known – to build a name for yourself or your business. But once you start to stand out and a journalist contacts you for an interview would you know how to handle the situation? It’s pretty easy to do if you know how but equally it could be a disaster if you don’t understand the basics. As a former journalist, and having managed several busy and challenging press offices – ranging from nuclear power to utilities – I have put together some quick ‘take aways’ on the subject.
Don’t be bounced into giving an interview
If you receive a phone call from a journalist, don’t assume just because there is a tight deadline that:
a) you have to give the interview and;
b) even if you decided to go ahead, that you have to do the interview there and then
Give yourself time – even if it’s a case of taking down their number and ringing them back two minutes later, you will have won valuable minutes to gather your thoughts. If the subject matter is out of your sphere of knowledge simply don’t do it. No amount of media coverage is worth the reputational damage of stumbling in front of them – being incapable of answering even the most basic of questions competently. But let them down politely and keep the door open by saying you would be more than happy to give an interview in the future talking about x, y or z. They could be a useful media contact in the future.
Use your press officer (if you are lucky enough to have one)
If you are lucky to work for a larger organisation, you might have the luxury of a Press Officer to screen media calls. In that case, the Press Officer would take on this task. They would make a judgement based on the relatives risk/benefits for the organisation and whether there is someone who is:
a) sufficiently knowledgeable
b) media trained/happy to do the interview and;
Weighing up the request
This will largely depend on the nature of the organisation. For example, for a small graphics business that has been approached by a trade magazine to comment on a new technical development in the industry, there should be relatively few downsides to going ahead – as long as you have the industry knowledge and the confidence and capability to give the interview. On the other hand, you could work in the nuclear industry and be asked by the media about the dangers of storing high level waste safely. In this example, there are clearly sensitive issues of immediate public interest and the potential for difficult and probing questions. Depending on how well these questions are answered, your company could be thrown into an uncomfortable media spotlight. In this latter case, it might make more sense for the media request to be referred to the UK nuclear waste authority which would be better placed to respond as the competent organisation. This would be a bread and butter decision for an experienced press officer.
Knowing your limitations
Assuming that you do not have a Press Officer expert available, you would take the call instead. But before saying yes to a broadcast interview, you also need to know what form it might take including the main subject area. Is it going to be in the studio or down the line? A one-to-one interview or a head-to-head (which I would avoid especially if it’s a controversial issue)? If you are happy with the answers to these questions, you would probably go ahead if the benefits clearly outweighed the reputational risks.
Horses for courses
This comes with an important caveat – in addition to having the necessary technical knowledge, you need to be reasonably confident that you can carry it off. No one is expecting you to be a media star, especially if the subject is uncontroversial. But you do need to be able to speak clearly and confidently, with minimal hesitation, and be able to think on your feet especially if any curve ball questions are thrown in. Far better to know your own limitations. I have known exceptional communications directors who were big enough to realise that they weren’t right for the task. In one case, the director thought he looked too shifty so whatever he said on television had the potential to come across as untrustworthy and therefore reflect badly on the organisation. Unfortunately, in this celebrity obsessed age, it can be all about appearance over substance.
Preparation, preparation, preparation
We haven’t even got to the interview stage yet and how to handle it. The best advice here, as with so much in life is: Preparation, preparation, preparation! Even if you know your onions, you need to be clear about what your key messages will be, how to deliver them effectively and coping with unexpected questions. I will expand on this is in a future blog – ‘Handling that media call’ (part 2)
Meanwhile, if you need expert media handling advice go to www.crediblecomms.com