As we explain in our media training courses, taking part in a media interview has obvious benefits. You can promote a product or service (if you do so subtly, of course!), create awareness for a cause, advance your campaign, or simply raise your profile and make yourself more attractive on the job market.
OK, but what are the risks of doing an interview with a journalist? One of the reasons why so many law firms, financial services companies, retailers, charities and other organisations come to us is to mitigate the risks involved in taking part in a media interview – and to maximise the benefits. Here are five tricky questions that should set alarm bells ringing during a media interview.
“What’s your personal opinion?”
You might be there to represent your firm or to be the spokesperson for an organisation, but whatever the subject, a journalist might well ask you what you think personally about an issue. Sometimes, in the role-play interviews that we carry out with participants in our media coaching sessions, people will happily express their own views and opinions on the interview subject. This is great for the journalist as it’s honest and human – but not good for the interviewee. The trick with a good media interview, we always tell people, is to sound as if you’re speaking personally and spontaneously, but to ensure everything you’re saying is in line with the organisation’s policy on a particular subject.
“While I’ve got you here…?”
One of the joys of being a journalist is the huge amounts of money we get paid. No, obviously not. In fact, it’s the ability to ask anyone anything. Of course, your Comms team or PR company can negotiate the terms and the subject of the interview – something that we explore in our training courses – but there’s always a possibility that the journalist will throw a question in left field. In this case, it might be to ask for your thoughts on that issue which is hitting the headlines but is only tangentially related to your responsibility and whatever you’ve agreed to discuss. Being ready for these questions and having a way of answering them is essential to maintaining control of a media interview.
“One of your employees/customers has told us that….”
As part of their research into your company or organisation, a journalist may talk to people who are even loosely connected with it and get information from your Comms team or PR company. In addition, these days, social media and online reviews have given everyone a voice about almost anything. If the interview is hostile or the journalist has forced you onto the defensive, this is even more likely. In our crisis communications training workshops, we explore not only how interviewees can handle the subject of the crisis or complex issue also but how a journalist in an aggressive interview might throw awkward questions at you. This one is pretty high on that list.
“Do you think the government should/should not/do more/stop…?”
The chances are that you probably have a pretty strong opinion of what the government and regulators should or should not be doing to help your industry or your business in particular.
You might discuss your thoughts and opinions with colleagues, family and friends. However, expressing them in a media interview can be very risky. In our media training sessions, we help clients identify audiences and messages. Given that we work with many charities and campaign groups, it might well be that they do have a strong message for their audience – the government. We’ll help them identify the problem, a solution, and a solid call to action. But the point is that all this has been thought about carefully beforehand and messages, language and arguments have been developed and tested. You certainly don’t want to start giving your opinions during an interview when you’ve agreed to talk about something else.
This one word might sound very innocuous. How can such a short and simple question be so dangerous? Well, it’s perhaps because it’s so open and general that it can present such a risk if you’re doing a media interview. Jeremy Paxman used it to great effect. Sometimes he would simply raise an eyebrow. Either way, the risk for an interviewee who hasn’t been properly media trained and advised is that they will naturally feel the need to develop their answer and say a bit more – until they get into trouble. There’s nothing wrong with using this classic journalistic question to build your message, perhaps adding more examples and a clear call to action. However, reacting to it by chattering away with no clear, well-prepared message can be very risky.
We hope that this list of risky questions is useful. We certainly wouldn’t want it to put anybody off doing a media interview. What we’re saying and the reason why we’re sharing these questions is simply that if you’re going to do a media interview, it’s essential to have undergone some Media Training beforehand – preferably with us. We would, of course, be pleased to help you negotiate these and other difficult questions.
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