How to give a media interview

When giving a media interview, you need to remain in control of the interview - if not, you may fail to get your message across or, worse again, you may get the wrong message across.

Be on the front foot before you start

  1. Objective – Be clear about why you want to use the media or why you have agreed to do the interview.
  2. Audience – Who do you want to reach with your message? Always know who the media audience is before the interview starts.
  3. Message – What do you want to get across to the audience? Consider your objective, what the audience might want to know (which generally shapes an interviewer’s questions) and what the audience (or interviewer) might get wrong unless you stress the correct information. Get your main points across first.
  4. Written – Always give journalists something in writing before the interview; offer to email or fax it to them.
  5. Preparation – Think about $ figures, statistics and any background information that might be useful in your interview. Prepare for the interview by thinking of simple everyday explanations and/or examples and by focusing on the main points of your message.
  6. Rehearsal – Practice with someone who can play the role of the journalist—try your family or friends; colleagues know too much.
  7. Interview – When you meet the journalist, walk them through the main 2-3 points of your story before they start the interview

Control the agenda

  1. Try to ensure the FIRST answer you give to a question encapsulates your most important point. For most interview situations, this will direct the sorts of questions journalists will ask you.
  2. Stick to your 2-3 key points (which may mean turning questions around). Back up key points with examples or colourful analogies. Repeat your key points two or three times using different words.
  3. Use the PREP method of answering questions:
    • Make the Point you want to make.
    • Back that point up with a Reason (give an explanation).
    • Provide an Example to illustrate your point.
    • Restate your main Point again to make it really clear.
  4. Keep your answers short and interesting. Be enthusiastic and lively.
  5. In pre-recorded interviews, you rarely hear the question. So avoid yes/no answers and pronouns, and give an answer that is complete and can stand alone.
  6. See questions as opportunities to say what you want, rather than something you need to accurately answer in detail.
  7. Check with the journalist at the end of the interview that they understood your key points.

Consider the different roles of researchers and journalists. Researchers work with accuracy, detail, prudence, incremental developments, robust methodologies and peer review. On the other side of the microphone, most journalists work with breaking news, quick grabs, key points and catchy and/or controversial comments - they work under constant time pressure and tight deadlines.

Be prepared to turn questions around

Most journalists are not out to trick you. They just haven’t time to do a lot of research and so they don’t know the right questions to ask you. If you keep answering their questions, you’ll both go merrily down the garden path and you may not get your message out.

Be prepared to turn the interview around and point it in the right direction. This does not mean you completely ignore the question. Rather, you see the question as an opportunity to convey your key points. Here are some phrases that might help:

  • ‘The point of the whole issue is simply this…’
  • ‘The really exciting thing about our work is…’
  • ‘Let me answer your question by simply pointing out that in the last...months we have...’
  • ‘I think that your question is best directed to...but what I can say is...’
  • ‘To appreciate our position on that issue it is important that you first realise...’
  • ‘Let's look at that issue from another viewpoint...’
  • ‘Well, that's an interesting point but the key thing I want to say is...’

Don’t want to answer a particular question?

Never say ‘No comment’. It makes you look guilty. Always give a reason why you can’t answer a question. Be honest. Some examples are:

  • ‘It’s too early to answer that question…’ or
  • ‘I can't talk about … because I'm not the person working on it...’ or
  • ‘…because it's commercial in confidence…’, or
  • ‘...because the full results aren't in yet…’.
  • Then add, ’but what I can say is ...’ and return to the main message you have prepared.

Dealing with difficult interviews

Most research stories are ‘good news’ stories—announcements or releases issued on behalf of researchers and accepted by an uncritical media. The agenda and timing is determined by the research organisation.

You should carefully plan and release ‘bad news’ stories about difficult or contentious subjects in the same way as ‘good news’ stories. Draft a media release, discuss it with the people concerned, nominate a spokesperson, work out the main message, put it in simple terms, anticipate the questions, rehearse and organise an interview or event. Take extra care with all of these steps. Respond to the issue quickly and credibly.

This is a time when you have to be careful what you say, and how you say it. Learn to control the agenda so your message gets out, not the journalist's ideas or preconceptions. Work out what you want to say, and keep saying it—pleasantly, patiently and firmly.

10 tips for dealing with controversial interviews

  1. Find out as much as you can about the agenda of the media. Why are they doing the interview? What are the related issues? Who else will they be talking to?
  2. Find out the media audience for the interview; this will shape the interviewer’s questions and agenda.
  3. For TV: Where will the interview be held? How will the location affect your image and that of your organisation? Take control of this.
  4. Do lots of preparation and work out what you want to talk about, and what you DO NOT want to talk about. Draw a very clear boundary around your story.
  5. Prepare positive explanations of the research that will ensure you stay on the front foot during the interview. Never become defensive.
  6. Be careful with analogies and explanation of risk—they can backfire. If you want to use analogies, make sure they make sense for the media audience you will be talking to.
  7. Acknowledge the concerns of others as valid, even if they do not have a rational basis to them. Don’t be arrogant.
  8. If appropriate, rehearse with a freelance or ex-journalist who can ask you difficult questions.
  9. During the interview stick to the key points that you want to get across. Remember, a question equals an opportunity to say what you want. It does not equal an answer.
  10. Remain cool, calm and polite during the interview. If the interviewer becomes aggressive, they are the one to lose out, not you
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