Roberto C. Goizueta, the late chairman and chief executive officer of the Coca-Cola Co., presided over a historic period of record growth in his company’s business. During his tenure at the helm of the beverage giant from 1980 to 1997, Coke became the best known brand in the world, and made millionaires of legions of investors.
Goizueta, a business philosopher, was known for one-line quotes that distilled an issue to its essence. One of his most famous is a maxim that all chief executives, whether in private industry or government, should follow: “Communication is the only task that you cannot delegate.” At the Roberto C. Goizueta School of Business at Emory University, entire course sequences are devoted to developing the communication skills of future executives.
Excellent communication skills complete a chief executive. And, certainly, media interview capabilities are an essential subset. But during more than 25 years of working with executives on routine media interviews and crisis communications, I’ve observed that only about half understand the implications, importance, advantage and power of knowing how to effectively handle the news media. And that sets the tone for their organizations. Here are the basics:
1. PLAN YOUR INTERVIEW
A media or blogger interview should be treated just as any critical business initiative that can affect your organization’s reputation -- and your career. You should have an overall strategy going in, complete with tactics and goals you want to achieve. Put it all in writing, just as you would any other business plan, but prepare to be flexible and adapt to changing situations. Good planning means doing some quality research: find out all you can about the story, the likely slant, the reporter’s style, and the publication or broadcast news program where you will be quoted. If you can choose the interview location, great. Always set a time limit and stick to it. The more extended the interview time, the greater chance for wandering off message or getting misquoted.
2. REHEARSE ALOUD
Take the time to role-play with a colleague you can trust to tell you when you are off message, rambling or fidgeting -- or worse, insincere. Ask them to pepper you with likely questions, some of them off the wall, so you can determine whether your answers make sense and whether you can think on your feet. Practice, practice and practice until you are confident and sincere in your delivery. Work to manage the interview. Be human, but never get comfortable with the reporter. He is not your friend; he has a job to do.
3. DEVELOP KEY POINTS
A media interview is a two-way encounter. You will want to answer the reporter’s questions honestly, but you should focus on getting your key points across first. Brainstorm and write down three key points you want to make during the interview and practice them out loud until they come naturally. Do not memorize them.
4. SPEAK AT NOTE-TAKING SPEED
You know your material, you are the expert and you are passionate about your business. It shows when you launch into a lengthy speech while the print reporter is furiously scribbling or clicking away at his computer as he tries to get down even a little bit of what you are saying. Slow down. If you want to be misquoted or have a video editor cut in a poor sound bite, speaking too fast is one of the most effective ways to do it. The reporter and editor will appreciate it when you slow down, and you will be pleased with the quotes that are used -- especially if you are on message.
5. REPEAT KEY MESSAGES
Focus on opportunities in the question-and-answer exchange to state your key points as often as possible and in different ways. Your goal should be to increase the probability that your key points will become part of the story. Take advantage of reporter’s silence or dead air to restate a key point. Practice the art of the pause, and don’t feel the need to jump in if it’s quiet -- unless (you guessed it!) you want to provide one of your key points. Use blocking and bridging techniques to repeat your key messages as often as possible and to manage the flow of the interview.
6. SPEAK IN SOUND BITES
Broadcast reporters want short, complete sentences that can be easily edited into on-air stories. The long, rambling explanation in answer to a question will never make it on the air. Television news is using sound bites that are three to eight seconds in duration -- a little longer for radio. Practice to keep your sound bites down to 20 words or 10 seconds max. This technique increases the odds that your comments won’t be edited. You can go longer in print interviews and on radio, but remember to do speak s-l-o-w-l-y.
7. ASK TO SAY IT AGAIN
Most broadcast reporters are seeking that perfect sound bite so they can finish with you and get back to the truck to file the story. They are usually happy to allow you to restate an answer, if you fumbled on the first try. In a print interview, you can simply say, “let me answer that another way that might be clearer.” In a taped interview, just ask the reporter to restate the question so you can answer it again a little more clearly. A live broadcast interview, obviously, requires you to apply a measure of finesse to restate an answer for clarification or accuracy. Again, practice makes almost perfect.
8. NEVER REPEAT THE NEGATIVE
Your negative assessment of a situation in response to a reporter’s negative suggestion will end up in print or on the air, and be attributed to you. A classic example during a news cycle about a toxic chemical spill went something like this: Reporter -- “This is pretty scary for the people of the town, isn’t it?” Interviewee -- “It is a very scary time for the people in this town.” Guess what the headline of the story was, and guess who was quoted as saying it?
9. AVOID JARGON
Unless the interview is with the trade media, the mainstream media and their audiences will not understand the foreign language you speak daily among your colleagues in your organization. Jargon and inside agency lingo will always get cut from the story or paraphrased in print. Speak in layman’s terms and keep it simple at all times. Avoid legal-speak. Consider your audience in your responses. Who are they, what do you want them to remember, and what do you want them to do after hearing or reading what you have to say?
10. NEVER GO OFF THE RECORD
In any media interview or conversation with a reporter, you are never off the record. It is a simple, ironclad rule, so don’t ask or agree to go off the record. If you don’t want it to be quoted, don’t say it.
Andrew Bowen is founder and chairman of the public relations firm Clearview Communications + PR Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.