Media Interviews Your Way: Staying on Message

January 16, 2012
by Joseph M. Slye

The following is a preview of a Leadership Training Institute seminar that will be conducted during the 2012 Congressional City Conference. Joe Slye will lead, "Managing Your Media Message" on Sunday, March 11, from 1:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.


"Hey, boss, it's that reporter from the local television station. He said he wants to ask you some questions."

Wait! Before you take that call, you need to prepare for this interview. First things first, ask your assistant to tell the reporter that you are in a meeting, or unavailable to take the call right now. Ask for his name, the television station he is with, the phone number and what he would like to talk to you about. Before hanging up, ask what his deadline is.

Next, find out everything you can about the issue the reporter is calling about. Prepare some notes to satisfy the reporter's questions. But most important, what is it that YOU want to say? On any topic. Yes, you need to be up-to-date on the issue that prompted the call from the reporter, but then you need to build a verbal bridge to what it is you want to talk about. Prepare three positive points you want to discuss. You may not get too many opportunities like this, and you want to be prepared to take full advantage. In fact, the only reason to do an interview with any media is to get across your point of view or opinion on issues. You may want to talk about your accomplishments in office, or how the unemployment rate has gone down in your community or the millions of dollars in revenue in your state's coffers. Every interview is a chance to get your message out to your constituents.

Interviews are not about just answering the reporter's questions. Every interview is your interview - a chance for exposure and "free advertising" to inform the public and clear up misconceptions, and to present yourself and your administration in a positive light.

Don't assume that the reporter will ask the questions you want. You have to initiate or volunteer your positive points. Do not to let the interview end without getting in all of your points - with stories, anecdotes or analogies that illustrate them. Put a face on your data by giving examples or telling stories. USA Today used this effective analogy to illustrate how much a trillion dollars is: enough to give a 40-hour-week paycheck at minimum wage to everyone in the world.

In order to stay on message, first, you have to create one. After determining your topic or issue, prepare a list of questions on the subject: both questions you like to answer, and those you dread. Make sure you know the answers to all of them - you never want to get a question that you can't answer. Then, ask a colleague to test you with these questions. If possible, do this on video - it's an amazing learning tool. Review whether you were able to answer the questions accurately, and see if you were able to bridge back to one of your positive points. Were you brief? Positive? Enthusiastic and passionate?

To segue into one of your positive points, use a bridge. For example: "That's not my area of expertise, but I do know that..." or "Absolutely not. But the real issue is..." Remember, your job in every interview is to talk about your positive points. Let nothing keep you from your goal.

During the interview, speak naturally, conversationally, without jargon, acronyms, technical terms or alphabet soup, just as though you're talking to your mother or someone who doesn't know a thing about what you do. Use words that put pictures in listeners' minds. For example, instead of saying that something is 47,000 square feet, say it is the size of a football field. One part per billion can be a drop in a bathtub.

If you don't know the answer to a question, never try to fake it. Promise to get the answer as soon as possible, and do so. Reporters are used to being told that an answer will have to come at a later time, just make sure you get back to them within the deadline. Remember, nothing is ever off the record. And never, ever say "No comment." If you cannot comment on a particular issue, just say so: "It's under investigation at this time, so I cannot discuss that."

No interview should ever be conducted without advance preparation. Practice with a colleague or media coach to avoid the "I wish I had said" syndrome. The goal is to create a win-win-win situation: The interviewer wins by getting the story, you win by getting your message across and the public wins by getting a better sense of you, your administration and their city.

Now you're ready to return that reporter's call.

Joe Slye specializes in assisting leaders with implementing organizational change aimed at improving customer service, streamlining systems and changing organizational culture.

An expert communicator with a strong public affairs background, he also works with senior executives in the public and private sectors to develop internal and external communication strategies that work. He has taught thousands of corporate and federal leaders how to give a great speech and how to give winning media interviews.