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Media Rules Of Engagement and Interviewing Basics

Note: This is a continuation in a series on media relations. To start from the beginning, go here

The other big mistake that most people make in responding to the media is to not follow the rules of engagement. Most of your calls will be from newspaper reporters so I will cover them first.

On the Record vs. On Background
There are basically two ways you can speak with a reporter. You can speak “on the record,” which means everything you say can be quoted verbatim, or “on background,” which means you are providing information that can be attributed to you but you will not be quoted directly.

Remember what I said about speaking “off the record”? There is no such thing. Off the record was a way reporters used to get information from sources that would not be attributed to an individual. Reporters hate getting information off the record because they can’t use it.

If you can’t say something on background, don’t say it.

So, when returning the call to the reporter, start by answering the information questions they have. You could, for example, say:

“I’m going to speak with you on background to answer your questions and then we’ll go on the record so you can quote me, okay?”

“So here is a little background…”

“Do you have any more questions about this? Ok, let’s switch gears. Now you need something on the record right?”

Now, let the reporter ask you a question. Take a breath and answer the question, but answer it using the talking point you have created.

How can you make sure to stay on message, to not get sidetracked and to offer great quotes and sound bites? Use flags and bridges.

Flags and Bridges
One of the hardest parts of speaking with the media is sticking with your message. How can you talk about what you want to talk about when you are asked questions that don’t allow you to hit your points?

To do so, you use what is called a bridge. A bridge is used when you acknowledge the question but brings it back to something you are able to comment on. For example:

“I don’t know about X, Y, Z but what I can tell you about is 1, 2, 3.”

“I can’t provide much information on that–I simply don’t have any specifics to share–but what I can say is…”

The cousin to the bridge is the flag. I use flags all the time. A flag is a keyword or phrase that tells the reporter that what you are going to say is important, such as:

“What I think is important is…”

“It is important to note that…”

“Again, I want to reiterate …”

“I want to be very clear when I say …”

Or my favorite, “Steve, here is the bottom line, …”

The idea here is to tee up your quote.

A good tip is to always remember to slow down. Most people tend to speak more quickly when they get nervous.

If you get off track, bring yourself back with a bridge or a flag. It’s easy with a little practice.

Radio Interviewing Basics
Let’s switch gears for a moment and pretend that you are interviewed by a reporter who works for a radio station. There are basically two types of radio stations: Public Radio and everyone else.

An interview with Public Radio is a lot like a newspaper interview. The exception is that the on the record part is taped.

The techniques for handling a radio interview are the same as those for an on the record newspaper interview, and after you have done many of each, you realize there is not much difference.

A quick note is that one of the things that are somewhat off-putting about taped radio interviews is that the reporter sounds far away when they switch over to a taped call. It is sometimes hard to hear the interviewer, and you feel like you have to increase the volume of your voice. Don’t. Just speak normally.

Another good strategy is to picture that you are talking with someone, like a partner or a good friend. Let your personality come across.

Also, remember that it is much easier to ramble on when you are doing a radio interview. If you start going off-topic and are concerned they are going to use this as a sound bite, use the name of the reporter or mention the context of the interview, which will essentially “ruin” the sound bite. Then, use a flag to set up a good sound bite. For example:

“…Steve, I’m getting a little off target. Here is the important point…”

Interviews with other radio stations are far less formal and also much faster. Quite often they will simply want one quick sound bite. I have literally had radio reporters call me and ask me to read out quotes that were in a news release.

Remember, most radio and television stories start life as newspaper stories.

Television Interviewing Basics
Responding to television reporters is by far the hardest work. In the same way that radio reporters often just want a sound bite, television reporters need a video clip. For this reason, they are often the pushiest and hardest to deal with.

Handle a television news interview in the same way you might a newspaper interview. Give background information over the phone.

Find out what the interview is about and what they need. In most cases, they will tell you what questions they are going to ask you.

Even more than with radio and newspaper interviews, you will have a sense of whether the angle will be a positive or negative one. I am of the belief that you have a responsibility to be interviewed, even for negative stories.

However, I also think it is fair to tell reporters, who often call from a cell phone as they and a camera person are making their way to your office, what you will say.

I’ve often said, for example, “I am happy to have you interview me but here is all I can say.” That makes them decide whether it is worth their effort.

If you end up doing the interview, try to arrange a standing interview somewhere. In my opinion, the best places to do an interview are usually in the parking lot or near the front door.

Do not let the camera people get b-roll footage in the school.

Keep in mind that an inexperienced reporter will ask lots of questions, while a more experienced reporter will ask just a few. Good reporters will put you at ease.

Tips for a great on-camera interview:

  • Look at the interviewer, not the camera. Never look into the lens.
  • Smile more than you normally would and speak slowly.
  • Hold something in your hands. I like holding on to a quarter. It puts your shoulders at ease.
  • If you have a jacket, wear it.
  • Tell television reporters before they arrive at your school where they can and cannot film. Be specific and be firm.
  • Stay out of the wind.
  • The big light on top of the camera is very bright and off-putting. Be prepared.
  • Make a special point to be nice to the cameraperson. Unlike reporters, who tend to come and go, camera persons tend to stay with a station for years and years. Be kind to them.
  • Use bridges and flags to get your messages across.

Another development to consider is that, increasingly, camera persons are being sent out alone with a list of questions but no reporter. This is the best of both worlds because you can answer the questions that are asked and throw in one of your own, by saying something like…

“You know, here is another question you might consider…and if you were to ask me that I would say…”

One final tip that is of special importance: Most reporters, before the end of the interview, will ask, “Do you have anything else to add?”

Use this opportunity to hit any message you were not able to hit during the interview or to reinforce your message. This is a freebie. Use the opportunity you have been provided with.

That’s all for today. Tune in tomorrow for the next post in this series.

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