Tag Archives: interviews

Don’t say this to journalists

Last week I looked at things not to say to editors. Suppose you’re an interviewee rather than a writer: what would be my top five things not to say?

In no particular order I’d recommend against the following;

  1. No comment. Even if you genuinely have nothing to say, this sounds evasive and as if you’re hiding something. I was once told “I don’t want to comment and I don’t want to read your paper saying I declined to comment.” The thing is, the guy had declined to comment and it was my job to tell the truth. There’s almost always something better to say; bridge into another subject if you possibly can. “My customers aren’t raising that point with me, what they really care about is…” will get you out of a lot of trouble. I’m unlikely to argue with your customers.
  2. I’m not talking about that today: Frustrating though it is, journalists aren’t there to jump to your tune. Of course you want to focus on your own agenda but you wouldn’t be this rude to a client – so try being a little smoother with someone who’s going to communicate with thousands of clients. Your announcement schedule has everything to do with your internal schedule and nothing to do with ours – try not to pass the problem on to us, we’re probably not going to like it.
  3. Can we go off the record? Loads of people use this one. If you absolutely must, go ahead, but be sure the journalist is trustworthy, organised enough to remember what was on the record and what wasn’t and that you’re both talking about the same thing. To me, “off the record” means unquotable; I’ve seen others who assume it means “print it but don’t attribute it to me”. If it could only have come from you, you could still end up in trouble.
  4. Your paper is rubbish. Seriously, I’ve had this. You’re entitled to your opinion and for all I know you have a point. But what useful objective is going to be served by annoying someone – not just journalists, in any context?
  5. I don’t read the press. You probably do a bit, since “online” counts, but that aside, this is a subset of “your paper is rubbish”. Starting off an interview by trying to belittle the other person speaks loudly about your own insecurities, and most journalists are experienced enough to understand that. Try not to tell us you’re terrified, we’ll only scent blood…

Do you need help engaging with journalists? Contact me using the form below or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Tip Sheet: Before the media interview

Let’s assume you’ve done the tricky part and attracted the attention of the media. Whether local or national, you now need to prepare for the interview. Don’t assume you’ll get to see all the questions in advance (depending on what you might say, we don’t actually know all of them yet). It’s a free country and we’re going to feel free to ask whatever occurs to us on behalf of the reader.

So here’s a quick checklist of things to have ready before your interview.

  • Three clear messages. Ideally these should be tied to your desired outcome. If you’re looking for customers, tailor the messages around why buying from you is a good idea (but don’t be too salesy). If you’re looking for investors, prepare messages about financial solidity, and soforth.
  • Prepare techniques for getting back to your messages every so often. Don’t ignore our questions, you’ll look untrustworthy – but come back to your points, as you would in any business discussion. I look at techniques for doing this in my media training sessions.
  • Interviewed by phone? Great – have a list of your company’s figures and facts, and everything you really ought to know by heart but you know you’re going to be nervous.
  • Even if you’re going to be in vision, prepare a list of likely questions and make sure you can answer them.
  • Then prepare a list of questions you hope they won’t ask and prepare answers to those, too. If the journalist doesn’t ask, fine. If they do, you’ll be glad you prepared.
  • If you’re going to be seen on screen, remember patterned shirts and jangly jewellery can be distracting – blocks of colour and simple apparel is best.
  • If you’re getting a new suit/dress/haircut for the event, get it a few days beforehand so you’re used to it. Feeling self-conscious is the death knell for so many interviews.
  • Try to video yourself answering questions and without being overly critical, watch out for repetitious phrases and physical habits people might find irritating.
  • Take all the advice you’ve ever had about how to sit up straight and keep your hands to your side in an interview, and bin it. As long as you’re not actually assaulting the journalist you’re better off being natural.
  • Ask the journalist what his or her first question is going to be. If you’re live on a streaming audio or video show there’s nothing worse than the first response being “Umm…..” – I’ve been there, done that, it doesn’t end well!

Media mistakes 9: (Most) Journalists aren’t trying to trap you

Why did you hire me for media training? That’s a question I ask every training delegate I come across and the most common answer is that they want to avoid the traps journalists will lay. They’ve done interviews before and they weren’t sure of the journalist’s agenda or what he or she was up to.

They are often disappointed when the answer is “nothing, mostly, just trying to write a decent story for the readers”.

The most extreme example of this was when I asked one candidate to “tell me about yourself and your organisation”. She panicked, said she couldn’t answer that, asked to stop the exercise and said, accusingly, “Why would you want to know anything about me?”

The answer was that I didn’t. A name and job title would have been fine, then move on to the company information she wanted to press.

Another time – a favourite story, this – I asked a guy the same thing during a session. “Tell me about yourself and your organisation”, I said. “Ah, I think I know what you’ve heard,” he said. “And it’s a fact that if you asked my last boss whether I resigned or whether I was pushed he’d disagree with me, but let me tell you, I resigned!”

I was no longer remotely interested in anything else he had to say. I just wanted to know more about his sacking SORRY resignation.

Sometimes the agenda is in your mind

In both of these cases the difficulty was in the mind of the person answering the question. In most of my media training sessions my first question is “Tell me about yourself and your organisation” – it’s me clearing my throat, trying to lower the temperature, just to make sure we have the basics covered. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Most journalists, in fact, will approach businesspeople with a view simply to writing the story up (or broadcasting it, webcasting or whatever they do). They aren’t looking to stitch you up, trash you or humiliate you.

One or two might, and of course a lot of the tricks they play and the strategies to deal with them are very much at the heart of my training offering. A lot of the time, though, you’re going to have straightforward questions from people who aren’t playing mind games, they’re just doing a job, the same as you.

Do you still need help with your media interaction? Want to know what to do when a journalist asks that question you were hoping they wouldn’t, or fails to ask the question that would lead in to your big sell? I can help – call me on 07973 278780 or email by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 8: The interview won’t be on your terms

Press interviews can go wrong for a number of reasons. One I’ve seen often is that the interviewee believes that by stating what they want to be interviewed about, they can stop the journalist asking difficult questions or straying into other areas.

I heard an interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme once in which someone had a press launch of an innovation coming up at 10.00am. Their PR had got them a slot on “Today” when they said they would be launching at 10 – the interviewer pointed out that they’d come on a radio show at 7.30, so presumably had something to say, and the interviewee declined to comment any further. The obvious question, which the interviewer was too polite to ask, was: in that case, why are you on this programme?

Another time they had an interviewee on talking about something and they slipped another question in at the end. The answer was “That’s cheeky, you’ve already asked me to come on and talk about that and I refused.”

The fact is, we don’t work for you – we might well co-operate and it can work really well, but we’re not your employee and you may not tell us what we may and may not discuss.

We’ll think it’s our interview

When I had a staff job in the 1990s I had one of the worst interview experiences ever. The idea was promising: a PR person had a client who sold into the education sector. They suggested my magazine should sit in on, and report on, a negotiation. We all thought that was a terrific idea.

The trouble started when the client’s client turned up 45 minutes late and claimed my publication had changed the time (which was entirely fictional). He then produced an old copy of the magazine, from a time before I worked on it, and said he was following up the interview that had been published in that issue.

This was of course drivel.

He then accused me of not doing my research, said I should have spoken to his PR person who would have explained this was a followup to the original piece. My guess is that this was how she’d sold the idea to him; when we put it to him that we should witness a negotiation, he said that was out of the question.

It wasn’t a great interview and I don’t think we ran anything. I suspect the main culprit was the troublemaker’s PR, mis-selling and failing to explain stuff to the stroppy individual in question and no doubt hoping he’d co-operate once he was on site. He didn’t.

His own problem was that he assumed (wrongly) that his PR person had set the meeting up, but even if she’d done so, his assumption that the journalist would be writing what he wanted us to was flawed.

Freedom of speech

The thing is, our duty as journalists is to our readers. We have obligations to our sources and subjects of course. If I write something inaccurate about you, I won’t enjoy hearing about it but I’m human and I know I can make mistakes. I will want to correct it very quickly indeed. I am also obliged to be fair. If someone is saying something about you and your company, I owe you the right of reply if I intend to report their comments.

But we have the freedom to ask and write whatever we wish beyond those parameters. Obviously you have the right to decline to answer a question, or to refuse an interview that’s unlikely to be good use of your time. Those things stem from the same freedoms that allow us to ask the questions we want in the first place. And very often it’s in our interest to ask about the things your business is promoting – when it works, it works very well.

But when you’re inviting a conversation with a journalist, remember we’re independent, we don’t work for you any more than you work for us and we’re going to ask whatever questions we think our readers would want us to address. That’s how it works and it’s unlikely to change. And that’s why it’s important to prepare for interviews and have strategies in place in case the conversation starts to move away from the areas you want to discuss.

Do you need help with press interaction? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

When is it right to say nothing?

In the past I’ve blogged about how saying ‘no comment’ is a bad option. There are times, however, when saying nothing is a good idea.

Occasions on which I advise media training delegates to say nothing include:

  • When you don’t know the answer to something: Seriously, some people will waffle terribly rather than say they don’t know something. A press interview is not a test like a job interview, if you don’t know something, have to check or whatever, just say so. If we say we need to know now, that’s not your problem – you don’t work for us. The worst offenders are the ones that make something up rather than admit they don’t know something. I’ve had those interviews and unpicking then afterwards, when a misleading comment has been published in good faith, is messy.
  • When it’s someone else’s department: Internal politics happen in business. So if you’re in product development and get asked about a sales strategy, even if you know the answer, the sales director might feel strongly about people discussing his or her stuff on behalf of the company. Worse, they might have changed the policy without briefing you. It’s likely to be safer to refer the question to the right department. Again, if we need our answer now don’t be intimidated – you don’t work for us.
  • When there isn’t a massive amount to say:  It’s probably truer of press releases than interview answers, but I get an awful lot of guff and ‘opinion’ across my desk when really, I hadn’t asked for it and it’s dull, dull, dull. My reaction is a bit like that of my pet cat Sammy (pictured after a particularly long conversation with me). I won’t use the comment, why would I?  If there’s nothing to say, don’t say it.

Do you need help talking to the media or constructing press releases? I can help – email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 7: I’ll take as much time as I want

I was listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 the other day and it happened again – one of the interviewees came out with “Let me finish my answer”. I’ve had this, too, and it’s easy to assume journalists are being rude if they’re trying to hurry you along.

So here’s the news: nobody wants to be rude to you deliberately. So why do we hurry you sometimes – and what can you do about it?

Be engaging

There actually isn’t an easy way to put this: if a journalist interrupts or hurries you, it’s because they’re bored with your answer. Now, there’s a good argument that says we’re not there to be stimulated but to report your view, but we’re human. If we get bored we’ll try to move on.

It’s also possible that we’re trying to get a smarter quote out of you. We don’t have the luxury of using as many words as we’d want; if a news editor has said “do this in 300 words” we do it in 300 words, that doesn’t mean 300 words per quote. And if the script of a radio show says we move onto the next item at 8.13 then that’s what we do. We therefore know that you’ve got 90 seconds to go on your item and you’re still warming up.

So the first thing to do is to understand the medium you’re in, spend less time clearing your throat and get to your point quickly.

Stick to your agenda

There may be times, however, when a journalist has their own agenda and you need to override it and get back to your point. If you’re reading this blog, which is aimed at business clients, you’ll probably be interviewed only because of some sort of expertise you have, so you have the right to take a certain measure of control.

Your problem is that telling the journalist to let you finish your point is always going to sound aggressive.

The key to making it work is to acknowledge the fresh question but finish the previous point, and signal that you’ll be doing so. So you might say “I’ll answer that in a second but first I need to finish the original answer”…or “That’s an important point too and I’ll get to it, but first your listeners/readers need to understand…” and then continue.

Always be calm, always sound positive and always get back to answering the new question as well as finishing the last – then everybody’s happy and, truth be told, you’ll probably sound more reasonable than the journalist.

Do you need help with press interviews? I can help – check my media training page for information.

Kids Company: a communications disaster

The BBC broadcast a programme last night on the collapse of the Kids Company charity. If you’re in the UK you can catch it on iPlayer. I’d recommend it as a fascinating study into a person’s drive and detachment from financial reality or the logistics of running a large organisation.

This blog isn’t about that. It’s about communication and it’s here that a slew of major errors on the part of the charity’s founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, and crucially two big ones from her communications manager, made a dire situation worse. Continue reading Kids Company: a communications disaster