Media Training advice – what should you say or not say to a journalist before the interview begins?

Just when Rishi Sunak thought that the row over his early departure from the D-Day commemorations had died down it seems to have erupted again. This morning Susannah Reid on Good Morning Britain grilled the defence secretary, Grant Shapps. It was about a throwaway, pre-interview comment that the Prime Minister had made to interviewer Paul Brand about the ceremony overrunning. Reid suggested that this was further evidence that Mr Sunak has downgraded this important event.

Whatever your view of the Prime Minister’s comment it does raise the bigger question: what should you say or not say to a journalist before the interview begins? It’s an issue that comes up regularly in our Media Training courses. When does the interview actually begins? When will your comments be noted and quoted?

Anything you say to a journalist before the interview has officially started can also be used.

All of our media trainers are also working journalists, operating under strict non-disclosure agreements. They know from day-to-day reporting that anything you say to a journalist before the interview has officially started can also be used. The same is true of any throwaway comments after the interview has taken place. The sight of the boss of Sainsburys singing “We’re in the money,” while waiting to do a TV interview has gone viral. In our Media Training workshops, we point to this as a great example of what not to do before an interview. 

“You’re never alone with a microphone.”

It’s often said in the media business that “You’re never alone with a microphone.” We quote this to the participants of our Media Training courses for lawyers, architects, retailers, tech firms and other organisations. If you go into a TV studio or sit down with a broadcast journalist in your office, you should assume that everything you say can be recorded even before the official interview has started.

This is true of print interviews as well as the broadcast variety. One of our media trainers remembers early in her career going to do an interview with a business that was making large numbers of people redundant. The managing director delivered a pretty effective interview, explaining that this had been a very difficult decision, but it was necessary given the current, economic situation.

Our colleague duly recorded quotes for the piece and then said, “thanks and goodbye.” The managing director escorted her to the lift. This is a courteous, personal touch which we would normally recommend when dealing with a journalist. Even if the story they’re writing isn’t going to necessarily be positive. 

However, in this case the company boss, assuming that the interview was now over, and the journalist was somehow off duty, mentioned that he was exhausted with all the extra effort involved in this downsizing. He was looking forward to getting away to his place in the south of France for a few weeks’ rest. Guess what angle our colleague took on the story of the redundancies? 

In our Media Training courses we explore what interviewees can say.

So, having looked at what you shouldn’t say to a journalist before the interview starts, we also explore in our Media Training courses what interviewees can say. Certainly, being friendly and approachable and making a little bit of small talk won’t guarantee that the reporter will be nice to you. It will, however, help show to them that you’re a friendly person who is pleased to be talking to them. 

Interviewees should prepare before a media interview.

One of the things you can say to a journalist before starting the interview is to confirm what it will be about. We always advise in our media skills workshops that interviewees prepare before a media interview. If they have a PR consultancy or in-house Comms team, we advise them to work closely with these professionals. They need to find out exactly what the interview is about and what their contribution is expected to be.  

Comms professionals will check who else is being interviewed, the deadline and what difficult questions or issues might arise. That said it’s always a good idea for an interviewee to confirm just before the interview starts what the subject will be and what the journalist wants to hear from them.

In the pre-interview small talk, you could also mention to the journalist that you’ve read their most recent articles or seen some of their reports on TV.  Almost all journalists have some kind of an ego, this type of subtle flattery can be surprisingly effective, even with a hard-boiled hack.

Having asked about the journalist, you could also briefly mention to them something about yourself or your organisation. Have they had a chance to look at what else you’ve said about this subject? Are they aware of something you’ve done recently which is a good example of one of the points you want to make?

Media Training advice – Ask the journalist direct questions.

With a journalist you might also want to ask them about what stage of research and writing they’re at. Have they had an opportunity to do a lot of research yet? Are you one of the first people they’ve spoken to? This will allow you to calibrate your answers so that you don’t assume that the journalist knows more than they do. It can also give the journalist an opportunity to lay their cards on the table. To say that they would appreciate it if you would talk them through the current situation starting at square one.

Media Training advice – what should you say or not say to a journalist before the interview begins?

While you have to be careful about what you say to a journalist before the interview starts, we explain in our Media Training courses, there’s no need to be tight lipped and overly suspicious. Like any aspect of dealing with the media, it’s essential to prepare beforehand and to err on the side of caution. 

Not many of us will face the same level scrutiny as the prime minister. However, you can prepare even the small talk that you’re going to engage in with the journalist before you start the interview itself. It can improve the chances of you getting positive media coverage.

What else you should and should not say when doing a media interview? Talk to us about media training. You can follow us on LinkedIn here.

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