Media interviewing: How to stay on message and avoid getting tripped up
Live television news programs are great places to study the dos and don’ts of media interviewing.
As I watched one not too long ago, I couldn’t help but wonder what the interviewee was thinking as he allowed the host to take him off message.
Everyone knew why he was there, who he represented and in general, what his line of messaging would be. Even the most casual of viewers would have known what to expect. So, predictably, the host decided to change the subject.
Where this interview went wrong
This is what interviewers sometimes do to elicit more honest and candid responses, and sometimes to get the interviewee to reinforce a different narrative, one that the interviewer wants to advance.
In this case, the interviewer asked the guest for his personal opinion on a social issue unrelated to the stated purpose of the interview -- this is a topic that was bubbling up in pop culture. This issue had nothing to do with the interviewee’s reason for doing the interview or his area of expertise.
Still, not wanting to appear evasive or insensitive, the interviewee took the bait and answered the question in good faith and on face value. He exhibited no understanding that surely there would be a follow-up question and the entire direction of the interview could change in ways that did not serve his purpose for doing the interview in the first place.
Indeed, there was a follow-up question and from his organization’s perspective, the interview went off the rails.
The backlash was swift
The subject on which the interview was to be focused was quickly overshadowed by the new topic for the remainder of the interview. Sound bites of his unprepared responses were featured all over social media, and YouTube was abuzz with his off-message comments.
Not coincidentally, in the following days, special interest groups held press conferences of their own on the same topic that the reporter had sprung on our interviewee. These separate press events were in no way in reaction to his comments. It became obvious they were part of a planned and comprehensive campaign whose launch was only teased and promoted by our interviewee’s inadvertent comments.
In hindsight, any veteran public relations counselor could see that the interviewee was set up to support a narrative that was pre-planned to unfold according to a timeline. Clearly, the interviewer was in on it, but interviewee was not, and he played right into their hands, letting his comments serve another purpose entirely.
All of this could have been avoided if he kept one question top-of-mind before answering every question he was asked: “Why am I here?”
No matter who you are or who you represent, when you sit down for a media interview, you have to put your personal views into perspective and possibly put them aside altogether. You are there to represent your organization. You are there to deliver your organization’s messages, to do so honestly, credibly and candidly, but perhaps most importantly within your own subject matter expertise.
Complicating this is that sometimes you’ll face a question so socially loaded that you feel if you don’t answer it directly and openly, or with words you think the interviewer wants to hear, you can appear evasive. You may fear that you will be vilified for not caring enough, or not coming down on what it appears the interviewer sees as the right side of the issue.
That’s the trap. When you stray from your own purpose, it’s not as simple as you giving a personal point of view. Because you are there to speak on behalf of your organization or as a leader of that organization, you could be ushering those you represent into a debate on an issue where they don’t want to be. Worse, your unprepared comments may be used against you or someone else by others to create a narrative that may have yet to reveal itself, one over which you have no control.
Stay on topic
If you find yourself in an interview for a stated purpose, and the interviewer seems to want to take the interview in a different direction, try this.
On the record, remind the interviewer of why you are doing the interview, and unapologetically point out that while you may appreciate the significance of the off-topic subject the interviewer asked about, that is outside of your focus area on this given day.
Then bring the interview back to center.
This all starts before you answer every question simply by reminding yourself why you are there. If a journalist asks you an off-topic question, it’s your responsibility to keep the interview on track.
Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy. He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.
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