Interviewing is a vital skill for any journalist. It is one of the most important ways to gather information and create content for a story. Good interview technique requires practice on both parts of the interviewer and the interviewee, so don’t expect to master it immediately. Christian Harris, Editor of BusinessComputingWorld, has been a journalist for over 16 years (and counting!) and has conducted plenty of interviews. However, only after the last couple of months working as a freelance communications consultant for a few technology companies has he come face to face with a sobering realisation?being on the other side of the fence and facing the media can be scary!

Not because you are afraid of public speaking or speaking about your company to a complete stranger, but because you have to be careful what you say so that nothing gets misinterpreted. Bearing this in mind I thought it might be useful to write a guide on preparing for a press interview aimed at companies who are not used to dealing with the media. Hopefully after reading it you’ll have a better understanding of how interviews work, what to do, and what not to do. Without the right networking techniques, a rare opportunity to get your product or message out there can fail drastically.

Interview situations

Generally, there are three reasons why you might find yourself speaking to a reporter. The first is the ‘nicest’, and that’s when you’re plugging your new product or service. You’re on comfortable ground here because you know your product better than anyone and you’re happy to talk about it because you know it’s getting free publicity to help drive sales. As long as you’re not too confident and excitable, the interview should go well.

The next might be to deal with a technical matter, in which the contact has been generated by you, your public relations staff, or as an inquiry from a journalist who knows and respects your expertise. This is also relatively easy as it’s fair to say that you’re on solid footing. You’ve been briefed, or at least had time to think out what you’re going to say, and you’ve had time to anticipate questions and answers.

The other, which can be a nightmare, is in a fast-breaking and controversial news situation where you’re unprepared for the call or the questions. It can happen only once or twice in a career (depending on your job role), but you should always be prepared. You can’t plan a response to every press call, but there are some basic elements that will help you feel less vulnerable.

On the occasion you anticipate a press inquiry, your position should be drawn beforehand. It should be written and distributed to key people in your office who might get a call from the press. Preferably, in such matters, a specific spokesman should be designated, and appropriate personnel should be advised that all calls on that matter should be given to the designated spokesman.

Understanding journalists

There was a time when journalists would travel, usually with a photographer, generating news and turning up at events. They had their ‘finger on the pulse’ of local business and would turn up in numbers to something special. They would interview the people in attendance, take great shots, write the story up and it would appear later that day, or that week.

In today’s business world every organisation is cutting costs—publishers are feeling the pinch just like everyone else. Consequently, you may have seen a reduction in journalists attending local events as their time is too tight. Often, they send a photographer (if they have any presence at all) and the journalist relies on other people to give them the story. Due to tight time schedules and ever-impending deadlines, journalists have quite a tough life—don’t feel too sorry for them, they have plenty of perks! They often receive hundreds of stories per day and have to sift through to find the good ones. If your story is badly written, or has a low-quality photograph attached, it becomes an easy decision to leave it aside.

Whatever you do—remember they’re doing your company the favour as the coverage they’re offering is free. So, don’t bug them for dates your story will appear, or copies of the paper or interview—reporters often won’t know and, if you become too demanding, they may leave your story amongst the others that didn’t make it. Ask once, and then leave it at that. Keep a note of the date given and if the story doesn’t appear make a quick call to inquire—not demand—why. Sometimes, an editor may pull a story at the last minute and the reporter is oblivious. Tread carefully or you may blow any further opportunities.

The journalistic process

Being interviewed, even with a single question, makes you—sometimes unwillingly—part of the journalistic process. While normally all you see is the polished result, you rarely get to understand the process itself.

With the exception of the smallest publishing outlets, the reporter you talk to is one link in a relatively large chain. He usually reports to an editor, who may herself be responsible to a managing editor. This means that the story the reporter writes passes through a number of hands, and may not be the story that gets printed. You should also be aware that the person who writes the headline may not even know the reporter. He’s normally a sub-editor and works from final text, often constrained by editorial space.

The key fact here is that not only is the reporter not likely to be an expert in the subject you’re talking about, he also lacks your emotional concern with it. Tomorrow he’ll be covering something very different. And the farther up the editorial chain his copy gets, the less the knowledge or concern about the subject. It’s just not as important to him as it is to you.

Preparation is key

Remember that the reporter has time constraints that may conflict with yours. He’s usually on a deadline and can be more curt than you would like him to be. If you’ve arranged a time to conduct an interview—on the phone, face to face, instant messenger, or whatever?make sure you’re ready at least 15 minutes beforehand so you can isolate yourself from your work duties and colleagues and focus on the task at hand. Grab yourself a drink and get ready for the interview.

When being interviewed, remember to interact in conversational layman’s terms, listen carefully and respond directly to questions without preamble. There’s nothing more annoying for a journalist than an interview pre-empting her questions.

Imagine you are speaking directly to the audience. Don’t leave it to the journalist to interpret what you are saying. This could be dangerous, especially if you don’t get the opportunity to check the article before publication. Speak clearly and deliberately slow down your pace, especially if you are a fast talker.

In cases where a reporter is merely doing his job when he tries to solicit a controversial statement on a matter, or to badger you into saying more than is appropriate, remain politely aloof and uninvolved, without fostering animosity with a member of the press with whom you might want to deal in your own behalf sometime in the future.

These are the facts to keep in mind during an interview:

  • Research. The first thing you should do is familiarise yourself with the publication your interview will appear in. Get a feel for the tone and style and it will help you to answer questions.
  • Be well briefed. This may mean rereading a few memos, or, in the case of a major interview, building briefing notes with the help of others in other departments.
  • Anticipate questions. Not just the easy ones, but the tough ones, too. In an in-depth interview, you’re not likely to anticipate all the questions, but the more the better.
  • Don’t jump in to fill the silence gaps. Journalists need to assimilate the information you are imparting, discard what is not useful, and take notes. Similarly, radio listeners and TV viewers will need to be able to absorb the information being imparted, and it is difficult to do this if the spokesperson is speaking too quickly. You also run the risk of railroading the interview and could end up talking on parallel lines with the journalist?i.e. each has their own, different conversation.
  • List the key points you want to make, in order of importance. You may not get to make them all, nor will you be assured that they all get printed, but that list of points is the spine of the successful interview. A curve ball may come when talking with a knowledgeable journalist who wants to control the interview. In this case it is no good trying to download a pre-structured format of what you want to tell them, as if you were giving a presentation.
  • Specialist reporters. If the media interviewer is knowledgeable about the topic being discussed, give him or her credit for this, acknowledge their comments and take the opportunity to share knowledge and ideas.
  • Portray confidence. But don’t be arrogant and don’t assume the journalist has prior knowledge of the topic you are discussing. Avoid marketing speak, industry jargon, unexplained acronyms and over-descriptive words like ‘unique’.
  • Be sensitive to time. Know how much time has been allotted for the interview. Don’t waffle! Those who lack content waffle?lots of words about nothing, which could result in a fragmented article.
  • Rehearse. Unless you’re an ex-politician, with experience in being interviewed almost daily, the more you rehearse the fewer mistakes you’re going to make.

For a successful interview, you need to remain calm, friendly and cooperative. With experience you’ll soon find that you can lead the interview and add new elements to the article which the reporter never envisaged. As long as it’s on topic and adding to the story, his editor shouldn’t cut it or rewrite the story and it will come out the way you want it to.

A good interview results in good publicity for your company and a mutually beneficial contact in the media, especially if the journalist is inexperienced?adopting the role of mentor and educating them on the topic, without being superior or condescending, could become a valuable media ally as she becomes more experienced and moves from one publication to another, as tends to happen.