Inner Circle

Public Relations and Communications  

Making the Most of the Media Interview

by Bob Farrace

Finally. After months of calling and following-up, you get that coveted media interview. The timing is right, the outlet is right. Now, how do you make the most of the opportunity?

First, know your goal in doing the interview: to get your message out. That’s how you will measure the success of your effort. In the end, you might have engaged in an interesting professional conversation. You might even have enjoyed it. But if your intended message does not come through in the finished piece, you will need to rethink your approach.

Second, know your message. This seemingly obvious piece of advice regularly trips up executives in all industries. Professionals with countless years of industry experience possess deep reservoirs of knowledge—ironically, the very reason message preparation is so important. Taking time to identify the three main points you want to deliver will focus your responses and increase the chances of your message staying off the cutting-room floor.

Delivering a consistent message during the interview does not have to mean relying on and repeating the same language. PR message points consist of a main point supported by anecdotes, statistics, calls to action and sound bites—allowing the same message to be reinforced in several ways. A main message of the mdg client National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), for instance, is that school principals need greater federal support to maintain leadership continuity in schools. A compelling statistic is that only 27 percent of principals remain in place for five years. Translated to a sound bite, “The average high school principal is not in place to see her freshman class graduate.” Each of these points can be woven individually into responses, but they all reinforce the same message.

Last, remember that staying on message is as easy as ABC. Noted PR consultant Sally Stewart proposes a simple response process that honors both the needs of the interviewer and your goal of getting your message out:

Answer. Dip into that reservoir of knowledge and provide the information the reporter needs. If nothing else, a knowledgeable answer will reinforce your authority and reliability as a source.
Bridge. Transition from the answer to a message point. Most of the time, a simple expression like “and that is why it’s important that…” or “to bring it full circle…” is sufficient to make the connection between the question and a key message.
Conclude. Present a message point that appears relevant in the context of the question. The stronger the connection you make, the greater the likelihood that the message will be conveyed in the published piece.

One final tip: Though it sounds counterintuitive, keep the conversation brief—no more than 15 minutes. One CEO called me one evening, unhappy after the airing of a CNN segment in which he was briefly quoted. “How could they have selected that line?” he asked me. “I must have spoken with them for 45 minutes.” The CEO had unknowingly answered his own question. Consider it a numbers game: The average on-air quote lasts 7.8 seconds, the equivalent of 18 words. A 30-minute interview might produce 5,000 words. Keeping the interview brief while staying on message increases the chances that the 18 words selected are ones you prefer.

This guidance applies not just to media interviews, but to all messaging that comes from the organization. One school principal, in fact, called me a week after mdg’s media training to tell me how helpful the training was for meetings with parents! Having a set of key messages is simply sound communications practice that translates well to any platform. And the more you are able to convey your messages, the further you will move the needle toward your goals.