Tips for giving a media interview

Media interviews present an opportunity to communicate with a large audience. It is a chance to present your messages and the information you believe the public needs to hear.

Before to the interview

  • Opportunity knocks: When a reporter calls for an interview, first determine the best person to give the interview (ideally you will have identified a media spokesperson already). Give that person time to get prepared. This is an opportunity to get your message out. Develop a strategy with a set of goals of what you would like to accomplish in giving the interview and the key messages the spokesperson will focus on.
  • Don’t get caught unprepared: Don’t take on “cold interviews” like the phone call at 8:30 a.m. when you haven’t even had time to hang up your coat. If you are cold-called, get preliminary information from the reporter:
    • What is the reporter’s name and what media outlet do they represent?
    • What is the story about and what information are they hoping that you can provide? Try to get a sense of the kind of story they are writing. Search for the reporter’s name online to get a sense of their approach.
    • What is their deadline for the interview?
    • What will be the format of the interview and story? Will the interview be a phone conversation for print? Will it be recorded for radio? Does the journalist want to record video for broadcast or web? Will the interview be pre-recorded or broadcast live?

Once you have this information, thank the reporter and tell them you will get back to them.

  • Set the agenda: Define your area of expertise before the interview starts so that you’re certain the story will coincide with your ability to comment effectively. Establish any limits to your expertise up front.
  • Work quickly: Some issues are more urgent than others, and reporters may be on a tight deadline. Speed in getting out the appropriate statement often matters as much, or more, as what you actually say. But make sure you still take the time to mentally prepare. Remember that everything follows from your first statement, so it must hold up under scrutiny.
  • Set the time: If possible, schedule the interview for a time that’s convenient for you. Ask about deadlines and be prepared to negotiate. Return media calls as quickly as possible.
  • Help select place: If it’s an in-person interview, you should have some input in where it will be held—inside, outside, at your desk, standing, sitting etc. Your comfort level is the issue. But be aware that the cameraperson and reporter have limitations imposed by technology. They can’t shoot you with your back to a window because of the lighting problems. But if you do some research, you should be able to have credible input as to where the interview actually takes place. These things can be negotiated.
  • Eye-to-eye is better: It isn’t always possible, but try to be interviewed in person (as opposed to by phone). Research has shown these stories tend to be more accurate. It also gives you an opportunity to give the reporter your facts and figures, key messages, etc., in written form (i.e. media release, background papers, briefing notes, journal articles, or statistics)..
  • Prepare your key messages: The media interview is an opportunity to tell your organization’s position in the issue, which you should have summarized in a few key messages. You should try to insert these into the interview at every appropriate moment:
    • Research your facts
    • Develop your main message (see pages 2 and 3)
    • Anticipate questions and responses
    • Rehearse your responses

Giving the interview

  • Off the record? There’s no such thing so avoid it. Sometimes off-the-record backgrounder sessions are requested by the reporter, but you must still be very careful in these situations. The information has a way of surfacing in unexpected ways. Reporters are under no obligation to respect “off-the-record” information.
  • Be yourself: This is very important to effective communication.
  • Be honest: If you don’t know an answer, say so. Promise to get an answer for the reporter if it’s at all possible. Always avoid using the phrase “No comment.”
  • Be confident and positive: Speak in simple, clear sentences. Always keep your goals and key messages in mind. You’re the expert now.
  • Be polite: Avoid being rude, hostile, or confrontational with a reporter. This detracts from your message. As Mark Twain once said: “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”
  • Listen carefully: This may seem obvious, but sometimes people get so anxious, they don’t actually listen to what is being asked. Taking some notes during the questions can help.
  • Condense your answers: This is especially helpful in TV and radio interviews where they look for summary answers that fit into taped reports—the so-called 15-second sound bite. This also works in print interviews because it helps you to focus on your goals and key points.
  • Avoid jargon (keep it simple): Journalists are usually not very well informed on what you do or who you represent. So, keep it simple without talking down to them. Academia already has a reputation for making simple things unnecessarily complex—here is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you can communicate clearly.
  • Don’t limit yourself to the questions asked: To get your key messages in you may have to turn a question or two around, or ignore the question entirely. It can be tempting to try to answer every question, but that approach will get you into trouble. Your goal in every interview is to make sure your organization’s position is reflected in the story, so stay focused on answering questions in ways that emphasize your key message. Sometimes the question may seem loaded or you may disagree with the premise. In these cases, you can pivot. For example, you might say: “I think the main issue here is …” or “I don’t think that’s the main point.” Regardless of the question, try to find ways to bring it back to one of your key messages.
  • Reporters make mistakes too: Reporters, particularly young ones, often make the mistake of asking two questions at the same time. In this case, answer the question you like better. Don’t feel obligated to do the reporter’s job for them.
  • To joke or not to joke? Humour is often a very personal thing and in an interview, when anything you say can be taken out of context, it often backfires. Try to avoid jokes and quips.
  • End strong: Avoid trailing off at the end of your answers. Try to bring every answer back to one of your key messages and come to a confident conclusion.
  • Repeat your key messages: At the end of the interview, summarize for the reporter. Be straightforward if you like. “The main points I hope you got out of this interview with me are….”

Things to watch for

Reporters will try different techniques to obtain their information. Often, these are standard interview methods taught in journalism schools.

  • Funnel interview: Starts very generally and informally to get you talking, often about anything but the topic at hand. The questions then get more pointed and specific. If it’s an adversarial interview, leading questions will be sprung towards the end.
  • Inverted funnel: The start is very abrupt and to the point. In an adversarial interview this can be quite a shock, so take a deep breath before you answer. If necessary, ask them to repeat the question to gain some time to think.
  • Leading questions: Take the form of questions like “Don’t you agree that the university faculty have a problem here?” The correct technique is to answer by recasting the situation and slipping in your key messages. “University faculty have always been leaders in this area and here are three examples of what I mean.” And so on. Don’t fall into the trap of a leading question.
  • The friendly conversation: The funnel interview, which seems to be leading nowhere with no particular urgency, often presents lots of rope with which to hang oneself. Once your guard is dropped, this type of interview contains more potential pitfalls than any other type. It’s OK to be friendly and talk, but remember that you are there to do a job and so is the reporter—and everything is ON THE RECORD.
  • Putting words in your mouth: Reporters are taught to turn an answer around by rephrasing what you just said, sometimes putting a pejorative spin on the answer. Be polite but firm and never repeat the negative! Simply tell them that’s not what you said. Then repeat your main points.
  • Interruptions: This sometimes happens when reporters get overly aggressive and confrontational. Don’t let reporters cut you off and interrupt your answer. It’s rude. Keep your cool and calmly say something like, “I’m sorry. You’re interrupting me in the middle of my answer. Please show me some courtesy and let me finish.” Most of the public will identify with you, not the bullying reporter.
  • Recording devices: Just be aware that, in addition to TV and radio reporters who must record the interview, many print reporters also record interviews either in person or over the phone. Sometimes the recording device is not obvious. Reporters are not obliged by any law to tell you they are recording. In any case, this isn’t something to be feared. They use the tape for accuracy.

Audio recorders are sometimes left running when you think they’re off. TV cameramen will sometimes actually put their cameras on the ground and start putting their gear away as though signaling the end of the interview, but the tape is left running in case you say something in an unguarded moment. Always assume you are being recorded and on the record.

  • Cutaways: TV reporters will sometimes film ‘cutaways’ that show them listening to the interviewee or repeating questions they asked previously. They use this footage to make their stories more visually interesting. During the filming of a cutaway, they might ask a question that seems random, but treat this as a serious part of the interview. Don’t end up contradicting what you said when the camera was on you in the first place. Stay on-message until the reporters have left.
  • Getting the angle: Reporters may say they need to re-ask a question with another camera angle or background. They will move you around and start all over again. Make sure your answers are consistent.
  • Repeating the question: Reporters will sometimes repeat a question with a slightly different twist. Make sure your answer is solid and consistent with what you have already stated. Use this as an opportunity to tighten up your answer. Journalists, especially those recording for radio and TV always appreciate more concise answers..

Looking good on camera

  • Be your normal self, speak clearly and not too quickly, but don’t overact or over enunciate when you’re on camera.
  • Look at the interviewer, not the camera.
  • Try to minimize movement and gestures (especially if you tend to speak with your hands). It’s acceptable to use the odd gesture to emphasize a verbal point, but excessive hand movement can be distracting and irritating to the viewer.
  • Try to use some voice modulation for emphasis, especially when communicating the key messages that you have prepared in advance.
  • Try to avoid flashy jewelry and clothes because they are exaggerated by TV.
  • Practice giving succinct answers of no more than 15–20 seconds that encapsulate your main points. Verbal lists can help here: “To understand this situation it’s helpful to remember the following three things …” It is a good idea to write these down in case you get stuck.
  • In television, good visuals are very important and will actually drive the story—campus scenes, photos that reproduce well, people involved in live action, lab scenes, etc. If you help the reporter find the shots they need, you build a more amenable relationship.

After the interview

  • Most reporters won’t let you see or read the story before it is printed or broadcast. Often, they can’t tell you when it will be printed, although most TV and radio reporters are working for broadcasts that same day.
  • It is permissible to ask the interviewer if they made note of certain points you were trying to get across during the interview. It is also OK to call afterward and, in a friendly way, ask for a review of the story. Many reporters will be obliging and may even read parts of a story for you.
  • You may also call the reporter with further information or clarification, especially if the interview left you uneasy in some way or new and relevant information has come to your attention.