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Mistakes Lawyers Make in Media Interviews
March 16, 2020

Our media training courses for law firms are always positive, uplifting affairs. However, we do look at the mistakes that lawyers make when doing media interviews so that they can avoid them and learn and improve as the course develops.

Having worked with a number of magic circle and silver circle law firms over the decades as well as various smaller names, we know how lawyers work and why they quite understandably make these errors. We also know how to help the lawyers on our courses to overcome them.

1. The first answer is too short.

Lawyers frequently find themselves speaking to judges, regulators and other lawyers. The aim here is to acquit yourself. To answer the point and then to shut up before you say too much. That’s quite understandable. However, with a press interview especially, take the initiative and keep going until you’re interrupted. Almost regard it as something similar to a presentation. We know that lawyers like being in control – getting on the front foot here will give you more of that control.

Answers for broadcast do have to be slightly shorter but again they still present you with an opportunity to get on the front foot and set the course of the interview. Many broadcast presenters are even less well briefed than their print colleagues and so they’re often very pleased for an interviewee to tell them what the story is and what their audience needs to know.

Either way, just make sure that whatever you say is relevant to the audience and the subject of the interview.

2. Not using an example or case study.

Examples, stories, case studies and even simple human anecdotes are the meat and drink of media interviews. As soon as an interviewee says, “Let me give you an example…” or “For instance…” we journalists will shut up. Phrases such as “I was talking to a client the other day and…” will also grab our attention. Once you’re telling a story you’re in control of the interview as the journalist will stand back and listen. Here’s one of our tips for media interviews: it’s never too early to come to an example.

Obviously, you have to respect client confidentiality. We do the same. So, here are three ways in which lawyers can include an example or case study without upsetting clients. You can use something anonymous. A phrase such as “One client in the tech sector was struggling with new data regulations….” Or “One retail sector client told me…” Just change a few details to make it unrecognisable. The second option is to use a hypothetical. “Say you’re a bank and you’re under pressure to comply with the ESG agenda. You could…” The third approach is to cite a public example – something that’s been reported in the media which is relevant to your topic but which doesn’t refer to a client.

Once you’ve told your story or given your example you can then make your point. Think story > point. You might even bookend your great example with point > story > point. Either way, do it early.

3. Not thinking about the audience.

The preparation techniques that we teach during our media training courses kick off with preparation techniques and this starts with the audience. Knowing the outlet is essential and not many people would confuse an interview for Newsnight with Newsround, for instance. However, when they’re preparing for interviews lawyers and those in law firms often fail to really put themselves in the shoes of those that they’re speaking to.

Who are they? How do they feel about you? What do they know already? These are key questions that, along with what you want your readers, listeners or viewers to know and do, are essential considerations before any media interview.

As well as dictating your key messages the audience will also determine the language you use and the examples you give. An acronym or phrase might be very familiar to you but will the people that you’re talking to understand it. Even then, will it really resonate with them? As we say in our media coaching sessions: “It’s good to use language that people understand but it’s better to use language they use.”

All too often lawyers forget that the general audience isn’t interested in the intricacies of the law, they just want to know what this regulation or piece of legislation means to them and what they need to do about it.

4. Expecting to approve the article before it appears.

Usually the demand by an interviewee to vet an article before it’s published – known as copy approval – is met with a hollow laugh by the journalist. The fact is that you’re in charge of what you say but they’re in charge of what they use.

So, being clear on your key message or take away and sticking to it will help you to maintain more control of the interview and the final report. Here’s a tip, though, which often helps to persuade to journalist to play ball. Rather than demand to see the piece, tell them that you hope that you’ve made yourself clear, but you understand that this is a complex area. You know that they, like you, want the final piece to be factually correct so you’d like to offer to check your quotes. Many journalists are happy to go along with this.

5. Forgetting about those left field questions

We’ve all heard it during a broadcast interview with a politician, industry leader or charity boss. “While I’ve got you here…” the interviewer will say towards the end of the interview and they’ll throw in something that is topical and relevant in some way to the interviewee’s responsibility but is certainly not central to the interview.

Very often PR professionals and the Comms departments of law firms are great at identifying key messages and the areas which could prove to be a threat. It’s essential to think about else might be “moving” on the story. A few years ago Sir James Dyson appeared on the Today programme to talk about a new apprenticeship scheme that he was launching…and then the presenter Justin Webb asked about Brexit. It’s perfectly legitimate question but one that Dyson should have avoided. Instead he answered it.

Within a matter of minutes of doing the interview his comments were on the front page of The Daily Telegraph online edition and were being widely reported elsewhere. His comments about his new apprenticeship scheme were largely ignored.

So, as well as the positives and the negatives associated with your key messages, among our tips for lawyers doing media interviews is to consider what else the interviewer might throw at you.

In our media training courses for law firms we stress the typical mistakes that lawyers make during interviews with journalists – but more importantly we offer practical advice and tips on how to avoid them.

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If you’d like to talk more about how to do a good radio interview, or indeed an effective interview for any media outlet then get in touch by giving us a call on 0800 1777080 or emailing us or to find out more about our media training, crisis communications and presentation courses.

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