Forbes: How To Successfully Navigate A Media Interview

(This article originally appeared in Forbes.) For corporate executives – including those in finance – who want to raise their visibility, getting a media hit in a top news outlet can be either a huge gift or a terrible curse. Having trained hundreds of executives to effectively communicate with every possible audience, I know that when it comes to media interviews, being prepared is not optional.

What many finance executives don’t understand is that a media interview is not a normal conversation; it is a negotiation between two people who have completely different agendas, more like a competitive chess match than a casual back-and-forth exchange between two friends. Good reporters expect prepared spokespeople to know this and to be ready for the match.

Think about it. As a spokesperson, your objective is to convey information that shines a positive light on your company. The reporter’s objective is to extract interesting information that their audience cares about and may even include topics you would prefer not to discuss.

That said, in a 24/7 news cycle, reporters are on a constant deadline, and without spokespeople, there is no story. So, despite misaligned objectives, corporate spokespeople should understand that reporters need you as much as you need them. And if you are prepared, there is usually more upside than risk in engaging.

We tell our clients that the definition of a successful interview is one where you successfully delivered your key messages and you are invited back for another interview because you were a great spokesperson. If you ever wonder how some executives attract positive media attention while others, who are perhaps equally knowledgeable, don’t — here are a few recommendations:

Do Your Homework

Preparation for a media interview is critical to success. It starts with knowing the reporter’s history and the audience you will be addressing as well as understanding the medium — print, broadcast, podcast, etc. Key questions to consider ahead of time include:

  • Who is the reporter and who is the audience?
  • What is the format of the interview?
  • What types of stories does the reporter typically cover? What stories has the reporter recently covered? Why does the reporter want to talk to you now?
  • What kinds of questions does the reporter ask that could inform Q&A preparation?
  • Are there any red flags or risks to consider ahead of time?

Prepare Key Messages

The only reason to engage in a media interview is to deliver your message. Yet, every day, we see examples of news stories that are clearly off-message from what the spokesperson intended to convey. In our experience, this usually happens when the spokesperson has not prepared key messages and is talking off the top of their head.

To avoid this outcome, keep your key messages firmly in mind and rely on them throughout the interview, no matter what questions you are asked. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said after a press conference, “How nice of you to have questions for my answers.”

Deliver Something New And Valuable To The Audience

We constantly remind our clients that the first three letters of the word news are new. The best interviews are those where spokespeople deliver something new, actionable or entertaining. Personal anecdotes and examples always bring a fresh perspective that helps your story resonate.

Lead With The Headline And Then Provide Supporting Points

The media thinks in headlines, so start with your conclusion and then provide supporting points, data and anecdotes. For example, if you were to get a call from a family member who was in a car accident, would you prefer to hear:

Option one: It wasn’t my fault. They ran a red light. The car is wrecked. I’m okay.

Option two: I’m okay. I was in an accident. The car is wrecked. It wasn’t my fault.

If you guessed two, you’re correct. That’s leading with the headline.

Control The Interview

As a spokesperson, you need to be an active participant and an effective navigator. Remember, you and the reporter might not have the same agenda, so listen carefully to the questions and respond thoughtfully. Having prepared your key messages, you know what you want to convey, so when asked a question, take a moment to think about how you can weave a key message into your response before you start talking.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to directly answer every question a reporter asks. Media-savvy speakers know how to redirect the conversation if an interview heads in the wrong direction and to move off of hot-button topics that can derail an interview.

Taking the time to master classic media training techniques like pivoting and bridging is critical to delivering your message. If you’re asked a difficult question, you can clarify or redirect with phrases such as:

  • Yes, that’s right but keep in mind that … .
  • Well, that’s not the way we look at it, but what I can tell you is … .
  • No that’s not accurate … if you look at our track record … .

Never Get Too Comfortable And Always Prepare For The Unexpected

While there’s no substitute for preparation, unexpected curveballs can happen in a media interview. For example, a reporter may be more interested in your point of view on breaking news than the survey results you showed up to discuss.

Tune Into Broadcast Interviews On Your Way To Work

Live interviews quickly reveal executives who have been well trained to engage the media versus those struggling to do their best but are obviously winging it. Tune into CNBC and Bloomberg on your way to work to spot spokespeople who get it and those who don’t.

It takes hard work and discipline to become a good media spokesperson but it’s worth the effort. A great media hit can help your company, and many of the skills you’ll need to master are the same ones you’ll need to win sales pitches, lead successful investor meetings or win employees over in an important town hall meeting.