Media interviews: you’re allowed to say stuff

interviews, media training

I media trained┬ásomeone last week whose default position in interviews was to give as little away as possible. She was worried the journalist or blogger would get something she didn’t want them to have. Her initial objective was to say not very much and shut up.

Fine, but what does that view do for your business? I’ve seen the cautious approach in interviews go spectacularly wrong a few times, and I’ve seen the other extreme too.

Interviews in which you don’t say a thing

In my last staff job I once interviewed a guy who’d sold his company. I asked how many of the staff were keeping their jobs. He was very stilted in his answer, which was along the lines of: “There will be a number of changes as a result of the new ownership of the business.”

OK. I asked whether he would be staying on and got exactly the same response.┬áThere will be a number of changes as a result of the new ownership of the business.”

Apparently once I’d left the PR people gave him quite a rocket. They suggested, quite rightly, that he’d sounded as though he had something to hide. Since he didn’t, this was quite galling for them. The truth was that he’d spent a decade building a business, created a load of jobs, most of which were continuing, and it was time for him to have a break and enjoy the rewards. Instead, I ended up with a picture of a rather shifty individual who gave the impression he thought he was up to no good.

All because he’d decided not to answer a straightforward question, for no good reason.

Interviews in which you say too much

The close cousin of shutting up too early is of course blabbing about everything. I interviewed a company – at their invitation – that did invoice factoring. This works to ease cash flow; you issue an invoice, send it to them instead of your client, they pay you and invoice the client. If the client pays late they do the chasing.

I gave them my business card, which said “reporter”. I asked who they worked with and they named several blue chip companies.

They were then horrified when I mentioned that I intended to name the companies in print. “But that’s confidential, you can’t!”, they said. I didn’t, but I had every right to. They had expected – hopelessly naively – that I would travel all the way to their office and write what they instructed from their brochure (note: this is not what journalists do, it’s what happens when you pay a copywriter).

On another occasion I was interviewing a guy about an early attempt at an Internet device, this one aimed at elderly people. This was September; he told me the version in February would be better because it didn’t have sharp edges and the Internet connection would be free. I wrote this and then had a complaint that I’d as good as told people not to buy the existing version.

Neither of the two interviewees had any sensible reason to tell me those things. On the other hand, the first interviewee gave me the impression something was up.

It’s therefore worth making a couple of lists before every media engagement. First the “they’re bound to ask” list, effectively an FAQ. That should be easy to ascertain, probably with the help of a PR person or company. Second the “I hope they don’t ask” questions and what you’re going to do with them.

Third, the neutral stuff – just find out what you’re allowed to speak about and what you’re not. People sometimes get tied up about whether they can name any clients, even when their employer names them on its website so the information is already public.

Get a briefing. Find out what you can and can’t say and have a strategy to avoid the questions you can’t answer, and remember “I’m afraid that’s company confidential, can I help you with something else?” is a perfectly reasonable answer even if the journalist or blogger doesn’t find it personally helpful.

But please, don’t assume that dodging even the simplest of questions is clever. If you really don’t want to talk to journalists, don’t do it – agreeing to talk and then clamming up is just going to look odd.

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