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How to Prepare for the Big Interview: Q&A With Brad Phillips

When your company secures an interview with a major media outlet, you may feel the urge to celebrate. Getting media coverage provides the perfect opportunity to showcase your brand’s best traits and increase advocates. Just don’t let your executive or chosen company spokesperson arrive to the interview unprepared!

To lead up to his Cision webinar, Brad Phillips wrote a blog post that featured a few of the mistakes top executives make during media interviews. He fleshed out more of these mistakes during the “How to Prepare Executives For The Big Interview” webinar and provided tips to help coach executives through challenging questions and hot topic discussions.

Since we received far more questions than we had time to answer, Brad generously offered to answer some of the leftovers. Read below as Brad offers tips that will help anyone who conducts or prepares others for media interviews.

Q (submitted by Marilyn): How do you keep a nervous spokesperson from making irrelevant, lame jokes?

A: Marilyn, I’ve found tasers to be highly effective. Sorry, was that one of those irrelevant, lame jokes you were referring to?

One exercise that helps is to give the spokesperson a lot of leash during the practice interview. Let them make as many silly jokes as they please—for your purposes as the trainer, the more the better.

When you’ve concluded the interview, call for a 10-minute break. Use that time to write a quick news story about the interview topic that quotes only their joke—and makes them look ridiculous in the process. Seeing the “real-life” application of their ill-timed humor is often enough to make them reconsider using it.

Want to learn how to engage media with a digital newsroom? Get our PR Starter Kit today!

Q (submitted by Virginia): Can you give any specific advice for working with scientists?

Scientist-Media-Interview

A: For whatever reason, scientists and physicians are among our most-frequent clients. I love working with them, but as you know, they can too often get bogged down by details that fail to make the big picture clear.

Here are a couple of tips. First, I always remind scientists of an Einstein line: “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler than that.” In other words, no one is suggesting they “dumb down” their content. To the contrary, I believe that simplifying complexity takes more creativity and intelligence, not less. One specific technique to help them do that is to teach them the “12-Year-Old Nephew Rule.”

Second, I find that scientists waffle more than they need to, unnecessarily reducing the impact of their communication. Their hedging may even cost them their chance to be included in news stories at all, since journalists are inclined to drop sources who won’t express a clear viewpoint. To eliminate unnecessary tentative language, focus on the parts of your story that are 100 percent true. Two examples of absolute language follow; I’ve bolded the declarative words:

1. You might not be able to say that a new drug will work, but you could say it’s the most promising new drug you’ve seen in your career.

2. You might not be able to say that your company has never had a safety violation, but you could say you’ve never had a major incident at your plant.

Q (submitted by Allison): Is it ever appropriate to deny a press request or say no comment?

A: Allison, there are several times it makes sense to turn down media requests (here are seven times to turn down an interview).

In addition, you might turn down interviews if the topic isn’t relevant to your work or if the topic isn’t company specific (for example, if a journalist is writing a trend piece about how the recession is hurting local businesses, you might not want your brand to be associated with the idea of a bad economy).

But if the story is about your company and will be written with or without your participation, you should probably agree to the interview. Here’s why: There are three voices in many news stories—yours, your opponent’s and the reporter’s. If you refuse the interview, “The Rule of Thirds” states that you’ll likely go 0-for-3 in the story.

That’s because your opponent will almost surely be critical of you in their one-third of the story, and reporters may hold your refusal to comment against you by slanting the tone of their one-third in favor of your opponent.  Speaking to the reporter doesn’t guarantee you a positive story. But it’s still usually worth agreeing to the interview since going 1-for-3 is a whole lot better than not scoring at all.

Not sure what to include in your pitch to reporters? Get our “HARO Best Practices” tip sheet for advice!

Q (submitted by an anonymous listener): In healthcare, most information is protected. How might I prepare executives to respond to bad press and rumors of adverse patient treatment when they are limited by confidentiality issues (e.g., HIPAA)?

HIPAA

A: Too often, I see hospitals and other healthcare providers lose every shred of their humanity when discussing people who have been injured or died at their facility—regardless of whether or not they are at fault.

Every case is different, but in many situations, I’d push your attorneys to allow a statement that doesn’t accept responsibility—but that has real sympathy toward its injured or deceased accusers and their families. Remember: other important constituencies (such as potential and current patients) are watching to see how well (or poorly) you’re treating their fellow patients. Second, I’ve had success by reminding reporters that HIPAA laws mean only one side of the story is getting out—but that your silence doesn’t mean the “facts” put into the public square by others are accurate. The challenge? Conveying empathy and pushing back against incorrect impressions simultaneously.

Brad Phillips is the author of “The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.” He is also the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm and blogs at Mr. Media Training.

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Images: Steve Jurvetsongoddard studio 13Cory Doctorow (Creative Commons)

About Guest Contributor

Cision invites PR and marketing professionals to share their best practices and advice with the Cision Blog audience. To share your story, contact blog.us@cision.com

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