What to do when a journalist comes calling
How to handle an interview request the right way.
When a journalist calls, it’s exciting and terrifying. They might be calling as a result of a media release you’ve issued, they could be after some expert comment from you or you could be in the firing line as a result of another story.
While being contacted by news outlets is daunting, an interview is also a great opportunity to own your message and protect your organisation’s public image. Try and make the most of the opportunity and get prepared.
Stay calm and think like a journalist – try to predict what they may ask, get your messaging down pat and practice delivery before the interview.
Rewinding back a few steps – long before the interview, here are some suggestions of what you should do when a journo calls:
The five Ws
The old storytelling technique of who, what, when, where and why applies here. While a journo might ask you these questions, you can ask them back.
- Who is the journalist? Where are they calling from? Do they have an area of expertise? Also, consider who the audience is.
- What do they want? What type of interview for what medium – is it a chat over the phone for print or an interview conducted in front of a camera?
- When is the deadline? When does the journalist want to do the interview and when will the story run?
- Where do they want to do the interview? At your office or home, in a studio or somewhere else?
- Why is the media interested in the story and why is the journalist contacting you?
Never agree to an immediate interview. Always try to buy some time, so you can prepare what you want to say. Get the journalist’s contact details so you can get back in touch with them to confirm the interview.
Remember, journalists are incredibly time-poor. To make it sound like you’re not fobbing them off and so they don’t chase you, give them a timeframe of when you’ll be back in touch – something like “I’ll just check my calendar/finish this meeting/etc and give you a call back within half an hour”. They just want to know quickly if you’ll do the interview and when.
Prepare and practise
Always prepare what you’re going to say and how you’re going to deliver your key messages before talking with a journalist. An easy tip is to write down the main messages you want your audience to know – these should only number about three or four. Keep it interesting and accurate.
Present and Interview
When you’re presenting or being interviewed, keep the three c’s in mind – be calm, concise and confident. Try to avoid any jargon as this might confuse your audience and your message will be lost. Aim to use relevant and easy-to-understand facts and statistics, as this will make you and your story appear more credible.
Even if you are prepared and have your key messages ready to go, journalists may still throw curveball questions at you in an aim to catch you off-guard – so be prepared for the unexpected.
Here are some of the methods that journalists may use to attempt to get you off message. If you recognise a question like the one below being asked, be wary! Use a bridging technique to get back to your message and take control of the interview.
A journalist asks you to predict the future or give your opinion on a hypothetical. Instead of predicting the future, say “What I do know is (your message)”
Words in your mouth/ negatives
A journalist can use sensational language to describe a situation or ask a question that starts with a premise that is negative or incorrect, in the hope you’ll repeat it. “That behaviour is just shameful though, isn’t it?”
A series of questions are asked in quick succession, usually over the top of you as you try to answer. These are designed so you don’t have time to think and they’re usually adopted in a hostile interview.
The trick is to not be rushed, take your time and stay on your message. Don’t raise your voice or get into an argument – take a breath, wait until the journalist has stopped asking questions and then answer.
A reporter attempts to create controversy by trying to get you to comment on an adversary – don’t be drawn into temptation.
Remember, you have no control over the final story. So, try to improve your odds of how you or your organisation are presented, by remaining calm and on message.