You Want Me to Speak to the Media?
I started a media training session in Edmonton on Monday by asking participants, who didn't have much media experience, if they would be nervous before a media interview. Everyone said yes, or nodded their heads in agreement. I then asked what they would be nervous about and the common answer was "I would be worried I would say the wrong thing."
That's a legitimate fear and one I understand. I promised them we would revisit that fear during the session and by the time we were done, they would learn not to be as fearful about saying the wrong thing.
There are four things you need to understand about overcoming that fear and getting rid of all the "What if" questions in your mind about speaking to reporters.
What If I Say Something I Shouldn't?
While I fully understand why people get nervous before speaking to the news media, they need to understand the biggest asset they have is their preparation.
They know much more about any story they’re interviewed on than the reporter does, so they just need to make sure they’re prepared for the interview.
I’ve talked in this blog before about proper preparation for a media interview, but here’s a quick recap. To begin with, take a few minutes to review the information you have on the story. Then put your reporter’s hat on and think of the questions you’ll be asked. Once that’s done, determine how you’ll answer each question and finally do some practicing, either with another person, or have your “imaginary friend” play the reporter and answer their questions out loud. You’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll be able to answer the questions in the actual interview.
One other important aspect to consider is questions that may be challenging and how you’ll answer them. As an example, if you’re a bureaucrat and think you may be asked to comment on a politician’s statement, knowing that you’re not able to, simply plan to say “That’s a political question and I can’t get into that, but what I can say is….” (bridge into one of your key messages).
Preparation is your best friend.
What If I Get Asked a Question I Don't Know the Answer to?
Similar to the example I just gave, there are a couple of ways to handle a question from the reporter that you’re not sure of the answer.
If it’s a legitimate question that you don’t know the answer to, simply say so and ask the reporter if you could get the information to them later in the day, once you’ve had the chance to check. Don’t guess at what the answer may be. It’s not your job as a media spokesperson to guess or speculate.
By the way, don’t say you can’t comment on the question if you don’t know what the answer is. That would suggest you know what the answer is, but can’t comment. When you don’t know the answer, just say so.
Another way to handle a question you don’t know the answer to is to bridge to something you do know the answer to. As an example, the reporter may be trying to take you into a controversial area you don’t want to get into. Your reply could be something like “I’m not sure about that, but what I do know is…..”
There’s no need to be nervous about a question you’re not prepared for. Prepare for as many questions as you can and if you get a question from the reporter you didn’t think of, there’s usually a graceful way out.
What If Something I Say Gets Taken Out of Context?
This happens far less than most people think it does. Far too often I hear people who have said something controversial later tell the media what they said was taken out of context.
Really? Perhaps what you said to the media wasn’t as clear as it should have been and the reporter reported on what he or she heard you say? That’s a different thing entirely.
This is exactly what happened to Edmonton Oilers Coach Todd McLellan this week. Reporters and fans were scratching their heads after he seemed to use words to suggest forward Leon Draisaitl was a selfish player. He later said that wasn’t the case, but he should have made clearer comments in the first place.
Keep in mind that most media interviews are recorded. There’s nothing wrong with repeating your key messages in different parts of the interview. It’s much harder for the reporter to take something out of context when you make it crystal clear what your thoughts on a particular issue are.
What If a Reporter Is Out to Get Me?
Perhaps if you’re Donald Trump that may be the case, but virtually everyone who’s interviewed by local media doesn’t have to worry about a reporter finding a negative side to a story and making them look bad.
It’s the reporter’s job to find news in a story. It’s not their job to take the best quotes from you, it’s their job to use the quotes or sound bites that contain interest, or add colour or texture to their story.
Too often people confuse the role of the media. It’s to find the news in a story. If a plane lands safely on time and everything goes as planned, that’s not news. If it crashes and people die then that’s news because it wasn’t supposed to happen. Does that mean the media just wants bad news? Of course it doesn’t. It’s the job of the media and reporters who produce stories to cover newsworthy items. While some people think the media “just wants bad news”, the reality is the media is there to cover events and stories that are newsworthy.
One of the great quotes from former colourful newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst decades ago was “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”
That’s still not far from the truth today. However, reporters aren’t out to get people, so stop worrying about the outcome of an interview and prepare properly to ensure you say what you want to say.
The more experience you get in front of the camera, the less nervous you'll be.
I have made the change to Hearst (silly me), but believe it was William Randolph Hearst with that quote.
It was - and is - a good quote but I think it was made by William Randall Hearst (darn spell-check?). :)