How to Prepare & Coach Executives Through Media Interviews
Securing an interview with a media outlet for an executive or other company spokesperson is a dream…except when it’s not.
Interviews provide an opportunity to showcase your brand and spokespeople as thought leaders, increase loyalty to your brand, defuse crises and drive sales.
However, interviews can tank and hurt the brand if your executives and spokespeople aren’t properly prepared. And more often than not the people speaking with reporters aren’t properly prepared, says The Media Training Bible author Brad Phillips.
Here are some of his top tips:
How to Prepare for a Media Interview
Write bullets, not novels
Executives don’t have time to have their hands in everything, so their day-to-day involves high-level company operations. During interviews, however, they are expected to know the nitty gritty.
To help them prepare, PR pros often provide several pages of prep documents filled with talking points and stats to memorize. Brad says, “That can be more paralyzing than anything.”
Providing too much information isn’t helpful; it’s a sign that the PR pro doesn’t want to make a decision or isn’t in a position to make a decision. Good prep materials should have two to three main talking points.
Use the Message Support Stool
In an interview, everything should be on message, but you don’t want the interviewee to sound inauthentic or as if he is reading from a script.
That’s why Brad developed the Message Support Stool. Just as a stool is supported by three legs, so should be the message. The legs of your message are stories, stats and sound bites. Brad defines those as:
Anecdotes, case studies and feedback are memorable because stories are memorable.
Numbers, unless shocking, aren’t memorable. Use the H&R Block method. In its “Get Your Billion Back” campaign, it didn’t rely on the stat that $1 billion goes unclaimed each year. That amount of money is an abstraction for most. Instead, it talked about how that sum equated to $500 on every seat in every professional football stadium.
When preparing for an interview, write down the raw data point and find a way to make it more relatable.
Use short memorable phrases or sentences, often metaphors, similes or rhetorical questions.
Create message worksheets
Before an interview, build a worksheet that consists of three messages. For each message, have three stories, three stats and three sound bites.
This will help keep the executive focused on one of the brand’s main messages and present it clearly during the interview.
If on a phone interview, have the executive keep the worksheet on her desk so that she can check off answers as she gives them. You can even gamify the results by seeing how many she can check off before the interview ends and challenge her to do better next time.
How to Give Better Media Answers
Remember why + what
In everyday life, we are conditioned to give what responses. For example, if someone asks about the weather, an appropriate response is “Sunny and 85 degrees.”
Though perfectly acceptable in casual conversation, a “what answer” doesn’t shine in media interviews. To stand out, have executives start answers with the “why” behind the question.
A common question that trips executives up, Brad says, is “What does your business do?” To handle this successfully, discuss the problem the business solves first. To paraphrase Brad’s example:
“If you’re a small business owner, you might want to export your product to foreign markets but you might not be able to do it alone. Our organization helps 10,000 businesses provide their goods to overseas markets through logistical management.”
Keep answers short
The longer the answer to a question, the more likely it will go off message. Try to stay in the 30- to 45-second sweet spot.
By having a short, tight answer, you will highlight your main point and ensure the reporter takes the right message from your response.
Be sure to practice brevity. Hold a mock interview and let the executive go through her long-winded answer. Once she finishes, ask her to answer the same question in 20 seconds and time her with a watch. She will automatically remove the secondary and tertiary parts of her original response.
On the flip side, clipped, short answers are also problematic. “Terse answers come off as evasive,” Brad says.
Speak to your target person
Go beyond demographics and focus on psychographics. Before practicing an interview, ask the executive to imagine who he is speaking to and help him narrow it down.
Ask him questions like the following:
- Are you talking to a man or woman?
- How old is she?
- Married or single?
- Does she work?
- Does her spouse work?
- Can you visualize how this person is dressed?
- What’s this person’s name?
If he is reluctant, explain that delivering a response to one person will make him appear more personable and relatable. The executive will also still reach the other members of the brand’s target audience.
How to Answer Challenging Questions
Give the real answer
When in doubt, tell the truth. The truth is often the perfect media response, Brad says.
Give the human answer
Many executives are so accustomed to defending their work that they forget to sell it.
Brad used the example of an executive at a nonprofit that helped crisis-stricken areas. If the reporter were to ask questions about a perceived slow response time, the executive shouldn’t get defensive. Instead, it’s best to provide context and understanding. For example:
“Ten years ago it took us a week to respond. Now, it takes three days. We’d like that to be better, but our progress has helped us save countless lives.”
Brad urges interviewees to avoid glossing over the negative and to remember to make the positive case when possible.
Return to your messages
The longer the interview, the likelier the executive will relax. Fight that. That’s when the seven-second stray occurs, Brad says.
Stick to your three messages because that single misstep could end up being the lede of the news story. And remember it doesn’t matter how nice a reporter seems, they are in the business of acting in the best interest of their publication and their readers, not your business.
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