How to make nerve-racking media interviews effective and stress-free

By Jim James

Founder of EASTWEST Public Relations

The press interview is a key part of the content and a key part of the objective of any PR campaign, and there are common themes and practices that everybody should be aware of and can use. There’s a certain degree of excitement to beong interviewed by the media and with this also comes a certain amount of anxiety as to whether you’ll get called out, possibly saying the wrong thing, or compromising the organisation in any way.

Preparation is key

Clients are ambivalent about interviews and always want to have massive amount of control. While that is important, preparation is even more important, because the golden rule with presentations and interviews is to be prepared, and this doesn’t just apply to clients. This can apply to the media as well. In anticipation of any interview, the client will have what is called a briefing book, and in that will have questions from the journalists and the client, answers prepared by the agency, the biography of the journalist, and links to stories the journalist has either written, produced, or broadcast. The purpose of the briefing book is to get the spokesperson in alignment with the journalist’s background. It’s also good to prepare a message home, as mentioned in the SPEAK|pr Methodology. The message should be simple, with one central message and three supporting messages, including proof points. The assumption is that the journalist is going to be the audience, but they’re not. They are actually the conduit or filter for the story they’re going to share with their readers, viewers, or listeners, and they are only there to ask questions on behalf of their audience to find a good story. Sometimes, clients or companies are reticent to give out information to a journalist, because they’re afraid the journalist is trying to catch them out. The problem with that is if you don’t give the journalist any information, they can’t write a story, and the audience may be disappointed.  Remember that they are merely doing their job, and they’re worried as well about ratings, advertising numbers, and subscriptions. 

On the other half of the equation is preparing the journalist, and this involves discussing in advance what can and cannot be said during the interview. This is why interviews should not happen spontaneously. They should always be prepared, so that there are ground rules set. It’s important to lay the framework for the conversation and also to give to the journalists the biography of the spokesperson and some and figures that helps them tell the story. 50% of all coverage in the newspaper, on TV, or on the radio is provided by a PR agency, so all that information gathered from the client or from the internet as research is presented to the media in order for them to make their story. Cision reports that there is so much content out there that the big issue for all the media now is how to process all those stories. And so, the goal is alignment between the client and the media on what the subject matter is, what can and cannot be talked about, and to create context, so that everybody is fully briefed before the interview. It used to be that one had to go to a studio for an interview, but with online meetings, time schedules are now much more flexible. It does mean though that people still need to be prepared and dressed appropriately, even if at home. Lighting is important, even on Zoom calls, and so is the quality of microphone, because these impact the overall quality of the interview. 

Why the Chinese love the British and the bridging technique

In a discussion with Rob Young in 2017 about British brands, the UK buys considerably more from China than they sell, but the growing ranks of China’s middle class seem to have a growing fondness for brand Britain, because of the heritage it represents along with the respect for individuals, innovation, and creativity. If you look at events and programs like Downton Abbey, for example, or even the affection for the monarchy in China, there is a real sense that the British culture is a well established and civilised culture, and the Chinese really enjoy and want to embrace that. Why Britain in particular stands out from among countries is they often think of the English as gentlemen. Another reason could be the humor of the people, the ability to make light of any situation. 

Some examples of brands that do well in China are Burbery and Jaguar Land Rover, which is leading in terms of both percentage of exports and awareness. Universities and secondary schools and boarding schools are also doing very well in UK property, so it’s not just the exports into China that are very appealing to Chinese, regardless of where they are on the social strata. When buying a British product, the expectation is that it was well-made, not just the hand-making element of it but the raw materials too, the supply chain is good, and so are the after-sales care, the insurance, and all the soft elements. Overall, it’s the general quality of the product that matters. While the value of the British pound has depreciated, this isn’t entirely bad news for exporters, because then there is an opportunity to take the extra margin and use it for marketing and greater distribution. 

A topic of conversation is Brexit, which doesn’t seem to have changed the Chinese people’s thoughts of the country. To them, there’s a sense that the UK is standing up for itself, that Brexit means that there’s a group of people who are saying, “We want a voice,” and that’s something to be proud of. Regarding relations between the UK and China, Chinese are more worried about economic and social development than political discourse, and so they see the Chinese government is taking on a certain mantle, but their association with British brands is not affected. They still have the same warmth and empathy about British brands that they’ve always had. The core message is the value of British brands to the Chinese in terms of the sense of credibility, respect, and craftsmanship. Though this was a common “feel good” story, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, the media look for a story that is chasing down something you’re not excited about or you don’t want to talk about. So, how does one manage that?

One of the tools used in media training is that of bridging. The bridging technique involves a question and then answering it by taking it back to the key message, and this is necessary in many interviews, especially during times of crisis where journalists are digging where people may have something to hide or maybe haven’t been fully compliant with the truth. In media relations, one never advocates that clients lie or that they avoid certain issues, but it is possible to try and control the narrative with bridging techniques. The other big one is the use of “No comment,” but it’s not really an effective response. Undoubtedly, interviews make a lot of people nervous, but there’s no need to let it cause too much anxiety. It’s just the journalist doing their job. If you’re a spokesperson for the company, part of your job is to articulate the vision of the company to the outside world, and media interviews are a great way of doing that. In summary, the secret to a successful and stress-free media interview is preparation. Know the journalist and the publication, let the publication and the journalist know what you’re willing to talk about, and have your facts and figures written down in a message home with one or two central points from one or two key messages with their proof points, so that the journalist takes away a good story, so that you get covered, and so do your company’s goals and objectives. 

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

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