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Somewhere between the PR team issuing a news release and the “greatest hits” clippings package is at least one interview with a journalist. For many executives and spokespeople, the media interview is as feared as it is coveted. An integral part of the public relations and news reporting process, how you interview with a journalist can have either a positive or negative impact on your professional credibility, your organization’s reputation and on other media coverage – now and in the future.

Debra Black, senior reporter at The Toronto Star, has interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of experts and spokespeople during her career. For Debra, a “good interview” is someone who really knows their material; is thoughtful, is engaged in listening to the questions she’s asking and speaks in a conversational manner.

“You should be confident, but confident of the material that you’re trying to convey, not in an arrogant way,” says Debra.

The best way to build confidence when speaking with a reporter is to ensure that you’ve taken the time to prepare beforehand. Not only will this make the experience more pleasant for you as a spokesperson, it helps the journalist do their job reporting on the story.

“If someone is not prepared it totally screws up the story you’re working on and likely they won’t be included in the story,” Debra says. “If I’m asking them a question, I’m expecting them to help me and our readers understand the issue. If they don’t know [their material] I’m not going to include them in the article, and I’m not going to go back to them as a source.”

The first step in preparing for an interview is to make sure you know what the reporter’s story is about and what they want from you. “Far too many people say yes because they’re flattered to be asked,” says Stuart McNish, an in-demand media trainer, video producer and talk show host. “The next thing you know they’re wondering ‘what the heck just happened to me?’”

Understanding what a journalist wants and needs from a spokesperson is equally important for PR professionals tasked with coordinating interviews.

“Please don’t set-up an interview for me with The Wrong Person,” freelance journalist Christine Wong said in a 2014 Meet the Press Beyond the Wire feature. “That could be someone who 1.) doesn’t really have the information I need or 2.) is only going to spout a bunch of corporate speak/marketing spin without giving me any real substance.”

If you are in fact the right person to deliver the interview, Stuart advises that the next step is to figure out what message you want to deliver. “Think about how you want to frame your response,” says Stuart.

If the interview is in response to a formal announcement, chances are your PR team has prepared key messages and talking points in advance. Ad hoc requests sometimes need a bit more time to gather the information and messaging.

Finally, do your PR team – and yourself the favour of giving yourself time to review any interview briefs or research materials before you get on the phone or meet with a reporter. If you’ve picked up an unexpected call from someone from within the media, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask if you can get back to them shortly; this will give you a few minutes to collect your thoughts and prepare. Even just 10 minutes of preparation time can be enough to ensure you’re confident and ready.

What happens if, despite your meticulous preparation, the reporter asks a question you can’t answer?

“It’s better to say ‘I don’t know and I’m going to find out for you’ than to make it up,” Debra says. Then, follow-up as soon as you can. “There’s nothing more infuriating than being on deadline and waiting for information from someone.”

Being a cooperative, well-prepared interview subject can mean the difference between being included in a story once a reporter files and being left out – this time around and in future. Taking a few minutes to ensure that you are well prepared and knowledgeable on the interview subject is key to positioning yourself as a spokesperson reporters want to interview.

About Amanda Laird

Amanda Laird was Manager, Communications at Canada Newswire.

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