PR 101 – Being interviewed by a journalist

Dec 6, 2022

Here’s my Cliff’s Notes take on how best to do interviews:

  • Plain English. Lively metaphors. If you’re a lawyer, avoid legalese.
  • Talking points. Reminders. Not script.
  • “No comment” is not an answer. It’s a sentence fragment. It also makes you look amateurish.
  • If you don’t know, say so. If you can’t talk about something, say as much.
  • Call back. Soon. As Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of life is showing up.”
  • Nothing is ever off the record. If you don’t want to be quoted saying something, don’t say it. Period.

Things to keep in mind

REPORTERS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS: Nor are they your enemies. They have a job to do, just as you do. Be cordial, but stay on point.

NEVER GO OFF THE RECORD: The best way to look at this issue is to simply adhere to the notion that there is no such thing as “off the record.” If you say it, they can use it. Say only those things that you want to see in the newspaper or on TV. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes (in rare circumstances) it’s a good idea to talk off the record. I can explain why, when and how, if you’re interested.

YOU ARE NEVER SAFE: Just because a TV reporter isn’t pointing a camera at you or putting a mic in front of you, or a print reporter’s pad and pen are out of sight, doesn’t mean they won’t quote you. Again, if you say it out aloud, you had better own it. Don’t say it if you don’t want to see it reported.

DON’T SAY “NO COMMENT: At best, it sounds amateurish. At worst (when, say, you represent a defendant in a lawsuit that’s accused of something particularly bad – for example, sexual harassment or ripping off customers), saying “no comment” is like taking the 5th. It leaves the impression that you know something that you are refusing to reveal. Better to say something along the lines of, “I’d love nothing more than to talk about why (my client is in the right or that this lawsuit has no merit), but I’m not able to yet.”

DON’T TALK UNTIL YOU ARE READY: When a lawsuit is filed, or some other litigation-related action happens (by you or opposing counsel), reporters may call soon after wanting you to comment immediately. You should assume reporters are on deadline for the same day. However, don’t make any statements until you are prepared and ready. If that means taking a few minutes or hour or so to huddle with colleagues and/or clients, do so.

WHY SO MANY QUESTIONS: Reporters often just keep asking questions without end. They are hoping to get you to say something you didn’t say previously, or say something different the second or third time around. Most often they want either to get you to say something in a more quotable way. Or they may want to provoke an emotional response (anger, shame, etc.).  Sometimes a reporter is simply buying time until he can figure out another good question to ask.

Interview time!

Keep in mind that being interviewed by a reporter is not the same thing as public speaking or engaging in a conversation. Unlike conversations or speeches, reporters are not interested in all or even most of what you say. They are most interested in quotes and soundbites. These can be as long as a couple sentences or as short as a few words. These are used to illustrate a story, most often to express an opinion or emotion the reporter is unable to because he or she must remain neutral in opinion.

People are most often unhappy with the results of media interviews because they feel they were misquoted or that their words were taken out of context. This is because ALL quotes and soundbites are essentially taken out of context. From an hour-long interview, a reporter might pull one or several sentences of your words to use as quotes or soundbites. The other 99-some percent of your words never make it into the story. Failing to remember this can lead to a negative story – or series of stories.

Take, for example, when BP CEO Tony Hayward was interviewed about the massive oil spill disaster, he did a splendid job in a press conference of communicating his messages, conveying genuine empathy with those impacted and pledging to make right all the company had accidentally done wrong. And then, in answer to a couple offhand reporter questions, he undid all that goodwill. He too, as he put it, wanted “his life back.” And in response to whether there would likely be bogus claims made, he said, “It’s America, of course there will be frivolous lawsuits.” Guess which of the hundreds of words he spoke during that press conference got quoted, over and over again?

Which is why if developing and focusing on your answers is important in any media interview, it’s paramount in the heated atmosphere of litigation. The more you’re able to convey the same messages (even if expressed with different words) over the course of an interview, the better your odds for having your messages used in the resulting stories.

Keep in mind that being well prepared for interviews does not mean being able to anticipate all possible questions. Sure, you should brainstorm what the top handful of likely questions will be. Beyond that, you simply can’t know everything a reporter might ask. Even they rarely know beforehand all the questions they’ll ask. Which is why it’s so important to remember that, while you have zero control over what a reporter will ask, you have 100 percent control over how you respond. The trick, as always, is remembering to convey your key messages, regardless of what questions they ask.

Print vs TV interviews

Messages are messages, regardless of media. But being interviewed by each medium is different. Print, even if accompanied by a still photographer, is more forgiving of your body language and mannerisms. Yet you needn’t be the most telegenic and polished person to do a good job with TV interviews. The most important thing to remember is to focus on your key messages.

If you’re doing a print interview, which are often conducted by phone, have your talking points literally in front of you during the interview. You needn’t read them verbatim to the reporter (you’ll likely sound robotic if you do). But looking at them helps remind you of your most important messages.

If you’re doing a TV interview, obviously you don’t want to read off a piece of paper. However, you might want to glance at your messages just before meeting the reporter and doing the interview.