The Jaybird Rules for Media Interviews

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by Laurie Jakobsen

Most people get understandably nervous about media interviews. It’s important to recognize that your body will probably have an adrenalized response – you will talk faster, and things around you will feel slower. So you need to remind yourself to breathe and slow yourself down, so you can better control your reactions (this is even more important for radio and TV). I always tell people that if they’ve been on a job interview or a first date, they already have a good sense of how to handle a media interaction – and here are my “nine plus bonus” rules to guide you.

First rule: an interview is a transactional conversation – not a friendly chat. Like any other negotiation, you want to reach a win-win with the journalist, but you need to have a specific focus on the key messages you want to get across. Remember that you are in control of what you say – you are not giving all control over to the reporter; this is not a deposition. You have something they want: a good story. That is what you need to deliver: on your terms, not theirs.

Second Rule: Prepare. Know your business goal for doing this particular interview, your key messages and talking points. Look up what stories the reporter has written recently, as well as their bio. Run through questions with people on your team – the tough ones and the easy ones (for example, I once worked with a music exec who was so nervous about a hard question that he drew a blank when asked who was his favorite band).

Third Rule: Plan your situation for the best outcome. If on the phone, make sure you will have no distractions. Don’t multitask. Have something to drink in case you get dry throat, and a pad and a pen for notes. Tell everyone you need no disruptions. Focus is critical.

If the interview will be in your office or conference room, make sure all proprietary information is nowhere to be seen (most people can read upside-down). Make sure everyone knows a reporter is in the building during that time period – that means no one yelling about code bugs, broken things, etc. If you’ll be in another space, arrive early enough that you can settle in without being rushed.

Fourth Rule: Listen to the question closely. Don’t answer a question if you don’t understand it – ask for clarification first. Take a deep breath. Then decide if answering the question directly fits into your key messages, or if you need to bridge (see Seventh Rule). Relatedly, if you are worried about a particular topic, you tend to “hear” that in a question even if it is not there. Don’t over-anticipate the negative. Focus on the question that was asked.

Fifth Rule: Once you’ve answered the question, STOP TALKING. Pauses in an interview can feel uncomfortably long – and a journalist will sometimes do that intentionally, knowing it is a typical human reaction to keep talking to fill the “uncomfortable” space – that’s usually when you’ll say something you may later regret. More innocently, sometimes they just need a minute to write down notes on you said. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that the pause may be a technique, and if they still don’t follow up, you can say something like, “was that clear?” or “did that answer your question?”

Sixth Rule: If you don’t know the answer, that’s OK. You can say, “You know, that’s an interesting question. I’m not sure about that. I need to get back to you with more information.”

Sixth Rule part B – You can always try to go back to the reporter later with a better answer if you think you really whiffed something, or have an additional example – as long as it’s before their deadline.

Seventh Rule: Build “bridges.” Bridging is a technique to bring a question back to what you really want to talk about. For example – “Sure, there are things to be worked out with our partners, BUT the important thing is that we’ve started the conversations and are working together on solutions.” Other bridging phrases and “flag” words:

  • Before we get into that, let me tell you…
  • I can’t share that with you because it’s proprietary, but I can tell you that …
  • What I want to stress here…
  • The point is…
  • I’d like to focus on…
  • The significant fact is…

Eighth Rule: Nothing is off the record. A reporter’s job is to get scoops. “Off the record” can give you a false sense of comfort. And anything that goes on around you during the interview is fair game for being in the story.

Eighth Rule Part B – The interview is over only once the phone is hung up or you (or the reporter) have physically left the building, got in your car, and driven a mile away. You never know who is in the elevator or the lobby and will report back on your actions.

Ninth Rule – Ask the reporter questions. – Chit-chat is not bad (within bounds). Get to know them a bit as a person. Ask them questions about what they are finding interesting in the space. Ask them for feedback on the idea.

Golden Rule: Never, never lie to a reporter. Ever. This does not mean you have to answer their question (“Sorry, I can’t share that right now” – or other techniques above). But lies will out, and you will not be trusted going forward.

Hopefully, these ten rules will help you feel more at ease the next time you sit down across from a reporter. Feel free to post your additional tips and thoughts in the comments.

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