Everything you need to know about media interviews and speaking to journalists
Dealing with journalists often fills people with some measure of apprehension. You may frequently hear remarks like “You cannot trust a journalist”, or “stories are distorted”, or “people are misquoted”. In some cases, this happens, but by and large it isn’t the norm. Most journalists are trying to do a decent job, and if you understand what they are trying to do and how they go about it, you stand a much better chance of avoiding the pitfalls.
Being in the B2B PR industry, we’ve had our fair share of interactions with the media and we’ve gained a few valuable insights along the way.
Based on this, we’ve compiled a guide to shaping constructive relationships with journalists. While there’s no guarantee that things will always turn out the way you want, doing your homework certainly helps.
It’s often said that stories don’t happen in isolation. It may be you that instigates the story by announcing something or calling a press conference, or it will be the journalists who are calling you.
If they are doing so, it is because their editor has asked them, or they have suggested that there is a story to be covered or worth exploring. Once the story is commissioned, the journalist will be judged on the copy they turn in. Hence, they will always try to make their story as eye-catching and publishable as possible. They have a vested interest in finding an unusual line – a scoop and playing it up for all it’s worth.
Where do stories come from?
Some stories are the original ideas of journalists, but these are the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, the idea will have come from a story elsewhere, a news release, or a news agency. The event giving rise to the story could be a company announcement, the publication of a report, a speech, an anniversary, or a significant occurrence such as the Covid-19 pandemic, If you are instigating the story, you will probably have an announcement to make and will send out a press release, brief journalists, and perhaps call a press conference.
The competition for news
Sometimes you may be surprised that a story appears as prominently as it does, and you may find yourself cringing with embarrassment at the extent to which you were highlighted. The opposite is also often the case. Sometimes you might think you have provided the journalist with an excellent story, and yet when you scrutinise the next day’s papers, you can’t find a mention of it. This is often because events have overtaken you.
Your story is only one of the hundreds that happen each day, and if the other stories are big ones which claim a lot of space, then yours might well be squeezed out. It’s just bad luck or bad timing on your behalf. As for the bad timing, to the extent that you understand and plug into the news agenda, you can avoid clashing with pre-set events.
What is a story?
This is a difficult concept. A story is something unusual; it can be a unique event or involve exceptional people. One way or another, it contains something out of the ordinary. It is because of this basic facet of a story that journalists often seek an angle that is different from the one you wish to punt. It is why they are often accused of looking for the bad news. It’s not bad news they’re after but different news.
An earthquake that kills 30,000 people is not in the paper just because it is bad news but because it is a rare event, because it is different. The fact that 30,000 people die from a common disease each year is equally bad news, but it is not a rare event, it is not unusual.
The point is, if you want to get your message across, you have to package it in a way that will be of interest to the news-hungry journalist. You must provide a storyline that is headline-grabbing.
Where the story goes
As mentioned, where or when the story publishes partly depends on what else is going on in the world. But there are other unknowns too. If you consider placement in print titles, it might fit together with another story that when laid out side by side, with a headline and a picture, becomes a big spread. It might just happen to fit available space. If the journalist has filed the story early, it will get better coverage – simply because it is available before other material – but then might disappear in later editions. Early copy, and copy provided at slack times, is much more likely to get used, hence the popularity of Sunday for Monday embargoes. Most publications have migrated or expanded to digital, meaning your story might not even make it to the print title (if it still exists!) and will, therefore, be published in an online publication or version of the title.
Key messages and key facts
Understanding all the above will help you get the most out of your contacts with journalists. But from your point of view, the most important thing is that you get your message across clearly and accurately. So be specific in your mind on the one or two key points you want to get across, and don’t be afraid to repeat them. If YOU do not know what your key messages are, there is no way you are going to be able to communicate them to the journalist. So, as far as possible, work out in advance what you want to say. Your key message will also have a much greater chance of getting through if you can back it with a key fact. Journalists love figures and league tables.
Writing journalists can represent different parts of the press; there is national press, regional press, technical press, news agencies, international press, blogs, and online media. Some of them will be specialists and some will be generalists. Some of them will be news writers, some features writers. All of them will be looking for angles which they can tailor to their particular market – an important fact to remember.
You may say something which you regard as quite uncontroversial and outmoded. People who are close to your industry, and are specialists, might also hold that view, but others may not think so, especially generalists and the mass media. This is one way in which stories sometimes appear, which in your opinion have been blown out of proportion.
But the fact of the matter is old news is often rehashed as new news, and you should be aware that the journalists you talk to are always looking for a story.
They will be looking for news stories that suit their markets. If you want to get your message across to a regional or local audience, or a particular national audience, then you have to think about what you are saying in those terms.
The important thing to remember is that these journalists have different requirements. Familiarise yourself with the target publication and research what the journalist is writing about – if you are going to get your message across you must understand where they come from.
Broadcast journalists want the same and more. For your words to be broadcast, they must be ‘broadcastable’, i.e. clear, free of jargon, relatively short and memorable. The television broadcaster may need something else as well, like visuals. If you can help with this, you increase your chances of appearing on television enormously.
It should also be noted that reaching the right contact here will take some digging. Securing an interest or in some cases, a response, means you have to find the right person first. For broadcast, this could either be the head of content/programming or specific producers. Start by contacting the broadcaster and inquiring about the correct person to reach out to, or simply confirming that the contact details you have are correct.
All these journalists have different deadlines, and you should always be aware of the pressure the deadline puts on the journalist and the extent to which you can help. It is no use telling a daily journalist or someone working for rolling 24-hour TV news that you will call him back next week with an answer. So, if you cannot give an immediate response, make sure you find out when it is needed and then if you promise to call back, do so.
When you talk to a journalist there are certain ground rules. The most important of these is to establish the basis on which you have your conversation. Clearly, on television and radio everything you say, once the camera or mic is switched on, is on the record. That is precisely what ‘on the record’ means. But there are other sorts of conversations that can take place with journalists which can be very useful.
On the record: everything you say is quotable and attributable to you by name. It will be assumed that you are talking on the record unless you state otherwise.
For background (or for guidance): you are giving information to help the journalist understand the story. This is not for quoting or attribution to you, but the journalist can use it to help place the story in a context. This is very useful for reminding journalists of things that they might not know, and for guiding them in a way that will ensure your point gets across.
Non-attributable (or off the record/or on lobby terms): this means that what you say can be used by the journalist, but it must not be attributed to you or your organisation. You can even specify the sort of attribution that is acceptable to you and agree to it with the journalist, e.g. industry sources, leading market players, Whitehall sources; company sources, friends of, and so on. Remember if this is the basis on which you want to talk to a journalist, you must make it clear when the conversation starts, not afterwards.
Really off the record: if something is really off the record, it must not be used at all. The most sensible thing is not to go into this mode because it has all sorts of pitfalls and misunderstandings. If you know the journalist well and trust them, then it is useful, but in other circumstances avoid it. The basic rule is if you talk to a journalist, you must expect that they will publish what you tell them. All that must be resolved is whether it is attributable to you or not. Remember, journalists will always prefer you to speak on the record, and unless you specify otherwise, that is what will be assumed.
If things go wrong
You have to be grown-up about this. You will sometimes be misquoted, you will often be unhappy about the way a story is treated, but getting redress is a long and often fruitless business. In most cases, the best advice is just to forget it because getting a retraction or an apology is difficult. Editors will usually back their journalists. If the problem is sufficiently severe, you should complain first to the journalist concerned, and then to the editor. There will also be a formal procedure to follow. As an alternative, you can take a more positive approach and write a letter for publication.
Television journalists conduct different types of interviews, and you will need to know what is being asked of you.
The package interview
The package is the term given to a television report, which is made up of film on location, interviews, and graphics. This report will be written and voiced by the reporter, who may also appear in it. Typically, it lasts for between one and four minutes, depending on the outlet. For example, an ITV or BBC1 report will average two minutes, whereas a Channel Four report may last five minutes. Financial programmes like The Martin Lewis Money Show Live, could produce a 30-minute show. The important thing to remember here is that you will be only one of several people who appear in the package.
This sort of interview is pre-recorded (it is not live). The answers you give will later be edited and one or some of them – chosen by the journalist – will be used in the news report.
The package interview soundbite
The interviewer is looking for no more than one or a maximum of two quotes (or soundbites) from you. And a soundbite is rarely longer than 30 seconds. Often it is no more than 15 seconds. Then it is in your interest to deliver crisp, and concise answers, in which you make one main point. Remember, in a package interview you may be asked quite a few questions, but only one or two answers will ever be broadcast.
In a package report, you will normally be used to illustrate a point that is being made by the reporter. This may seem very basic to you but remember that some television viewers don’t know your industry, and the reporter will be hoping that you and your company can provide easily understandable insights into current issues.
Try to turn your answers into statements. This is necessary because often, the question will not be broadcast. So, if you are asked for your company’s export strategy, don’t reply: “It is to concentrate on Europe”, because no-one will know what you are referring to. Instead say: “This company’s export strategy is to concentrate on Europe…”. The trick is to take your cue from the question.
In a pre-recorded package interview, if you do not like the answer or you feel you have fluffed it, you can stop and re-start. Don’t do this too often or it will antagonise the interviewer, and often the more times you repeat an answer, the worse it gets.
Where and how long
If you are asked to appear in a package report, the interview itself should take no more than 15 minutes. But there will also be the time needed for setting up the interview location, and so the total interview time could run to 30 minutes.
Give some thought about where the interview is to take place. Businesspeople often suggest company meeting rooms, but these tend to be dull locations, with bare walls.
The journalist would rather do the interview where something is interesting in the background. This can vary from a pot plant to a bookcase or a factory shop floor. Your office might appear messy and dull to you, but if it looks busy and active, that will appeal to the journalist. Don’t try to tidy everything from your office desk, it is supposed to look like a place of work, not a laboratory.
If you’re booked in for a live interview, you might be delayed or bumped to make way for breaking news. It’s just the nature of the game and being impatient won’t change anything! If it happens, be gracious with the producers, and they’ll be more likely to create space for you further down the line.
As well as the interview, be prepared to be asked for a set-up shot. This is a shot of you doing something, over which you can be introduced. It could be you working at your computer, in a meeting with colleagues or walking through your office or factory. It might seem odd to you to be asked to do this, but it is an entirely normal and harmless request.
And some pictures
You will often also be asked to provide a film crew with access to some of your company’s activities. If you make cars, the reporter will want to film the production line. If you are a bank or financial institution, again the reporter will want to film something which illustrates the activities you undertake. This is also time-consuming although it is not necessary for you to accompany the film crew yourself. A foreman or office manager can do this job. All in all, a news camera crew should require no more than two hours to be in and out of your premises.
People often worry that this will be disruptive to the working environment. But the days when a television crew consisted of five or six people and bulky equipment are long gone. It is far more usual these days for a TV crew to consist of just two people – the reporter, who also acts as producer and director, and the camera operator who also does the lighting and sound. Equipment is light and portable. TV news crews are not making movies.
Providing the pictures yourself
Some companies have good reasons for not allowing film crews in – the area may be high security or dangerous. If this is the case, you should consider providing your own material for broadcasters. This footage needs to be shot in a way that will allow broadcasters to use it. It is not a corporate video or an advert. These background or library tapes can be produced for companies who want to take their media relationships to a further level.
Interviews down the line
Sometimes you will be asked by the TV company to do the interview down the line. This happens when there is no time to get a camera crew to you. Instead, you will be asked to go to the nearest studio to your place of work. This is usually a regional TV centre. Once there, you will be shown into a room where you sit down facing a camera. The questions will be fed to you through an earpiece, and you will respond to the camera. This is very difficult, but it is quite common. However, remember, the reporter is still looking for a crisp soundbite to go into his/her package. The next section will tell you more about studio interviews, and the techniques to use.
With all live interviews, there are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage to you is that everything you say will be broadcast – no-one can choose which soundbites they like or dislike. The disadvantage is that you don’t get a second chance and have to be thinking on your feet the whole time. Some people prefer live interviews because they don’t have time to worry about their answers and just perform naturally.
In a face-to-face studio interview, you will be under bright lights and will be well advised to accept an offer of makeup. Remember to look at the interviewer and talk to him/her. You will look very shifty if your eyes start roaming around. Also keep your head and body still. If you are sitting on a swivel chair, plant both feet on the floor, and resist the temptation to shuffle. Better still ask for a non-swivel chair.
When you are being interviewed from an outside or remote location, you have to treat the camera lens as your focus of attention, unless the producer tells you otherwise. (You may sometimes be told to look camera left or camera right. If so, the best thing to do is fix your eyes on some particular spot or item and imagine that is the interviewer.)
As in all interviews, the same basic rules apply in a live situation. Make your answers crisp and concise, avoid jargon, and don’t try to cram in too many points in one go.
In a live interview the interviewer will come back at you with supplementary questions, so be aware that you may have to follow up or elaborate on a previously made point. The live interview is usually a conversation between you and the interviewer.
All the requirements for good television interviews also apply to radio. You need to be clear and concise, and some interviews will be live, and others will be pre-recorded package interviews.
Because your audience cannot see you, the most important thing is how you sound. You need to be authoritative and be able to project some of your personality into your voice. It is important to sound enthusiastic.
You can refer to notes on radio, although it won’t necessarily help. Radio is a very relaxed medium and many people find it easier than television. Often it helps if you can paint pictures with your replies. The listeners are using their imagination as you speak, and you can help them by referring to everyday scenes that will be meaningful. Remember, the people you are trying to communicate with are the audience at home.
Interview tips and techniques
You can ask the interviewer in advance what questions they are going to ask. They might not stick to the specific questions, but you will have some idea of the areas to be covered.
It’s often a mistake to over-rehearse your answers. It’s fine to have a good idea of what you want to say, but you must still put it over naturally and confidently. Many interviewees try to learn their answers off by heart and repeat them. They look wooden and are concentrating more on remembering their lines than on answering the question.
Remember to look at the interviewer if there is one. The person you are talking to, not the camera, is the focus of your attention.
The responsibility will be on you to double-check before the interview starts that you look respectable. If your tie is crooked, no-one will listen to what you are saying.
Don’t feel you have to carry on speaking until you are interrupted. Answer the question, make one or two points and then stop.
Don’t refer to notes. It looks odd and will distract you and the viewer.
Think about introducing into your answer an everyday metaphor or phrase, a colourful turn of phrase is often what the interviewer is looking for.
Avoid jargon and acronyms. You and the people in your field may understand, but people in the real world won’t.
If you’re being interviewed at home, try not to have a window behind you. Move your set-up to face a window if possible. You might want to buy a ring light if you’re going to be on webcam quite often.
Lift your camera to eye-height or just above, and film in landscape and sit with your bottom in the back of your chair so that you sit upright – it makes a big difference to your voice projection and thus perceived topic authority.
To make sure you get to mention your key message, a good technique to follow is ‘answer, bridge, control’. This is a tactic politicians will often employ. When answering, you acknowledge the question, use a bridging word like ‘but’ or ‘however’ and then proceed to provide an ‘on message’ answer. This should be used sparingly however; journalists are wise to it and will become annoyed if you constantly avoid answering the original question. Getting good at this requires professional media training.
Practice OUT LOUD. The aim for how you speak should be how you’d tell something to a friend.
Pace yourself – be clear, especially for unusual words/brand names. Most need to slow down.
Be prepared to repeat the question back as part of your answer. For example, if you are asked ‘Why is your company at this event?’ you would answer ‘[company name] is at [event] to XYZ’ etc.
Try not to umm or ahh as it undermines credibility and authority – instead, make short, relevant points, including your key messages if you can.
A checklist of things to remember…
Journalists are looking for stories
Your story is competing with hundreds of others
Journalists have different target audiences
Know your key messages
Deadlines must always be met
Establish the ground rules for interviews
Plug into the news agenda
It is not easy to get apologies or retractions
…and for television
A soundbite is rarely longer than 30 seconds
Give crisp and concise answers
Look at the interviewer and keep still
You can restart a pre-recorded answer (but not a live one)
Think about the best interview location
Avoid notes and don’t over-rehearse
Know when to shut up
There you have it. We hope you find this guide useful and that it will help you prepare for current or future interactions with the media. It is a lot to digest but if followed correctly, these guidelines will help you to build and maintain good relations with target journalists.
If you have more questions, require media training, or if you’re looking to partner with a B2B PR agency that will successfully give your reputation and media profile a boost, then get in touch or click here to get back to the top of the page.
Written by: Katie Chodosh, media relations director at Definition.