It’s YOUR Interview: An Introduction to Media Interview Techniques

Sidebar: Media Interview Do’s and Don’ts DO: Establish ground rules subject time Stay in your lane Deliver your messages Assume everything you say will be printed Use simple, everyday language (talking to my grandmother) Use analogies to explain technical information Set the record straight Always be honest DON’T: Speculate Say anything you don’t want to see in print Use acronyms or technical jargon Answer hypothetical questions Use “no comment” Argue Just answer yes or no

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The single most powerful tool that an air show professional has at his or her disposal is the media. The size, subject matter, once-a-year frequency, visual attractiveness of the aircraft, and mesmerizing attractiveness of air shows make them almost irresistible to producers, editors and reporters. Front page newspaper coverage and television evening news feature stories are so common when the air show comes to town that they are practically expected. But the power that this media attention represents is greatly reduced if, as air show professionals, we misunderstand our relationship with the media or if we engage the media on its terms rather than our own.

Clearly, engaging the media is critically important if air shows and air show pilots are to take full advantage of the many different opportunities that press coverage offers. An informed public is a critical prerequisite to a successful air show and the media offer an effective, cost-efficient tool for spreading the word.

With preparation, knowledge of your messages and use of a few tools to control an interview, air show professionals – both event organizers and performers — can have a positive influence on how the air show is covered in the press. Without that planning and preparation, the air show will miss important opportunities to present its side of the issues, generate the kind of press that will increase attendance and produce positive coverage of the air show in the media. So, to be successful, you must plan your mission.

It’s All About the Message

That means you need to define your communication goals and develop key messages that you want the reporter and your audience to remember.  “What is it that you want everyone to know?” Before you engage with the media, it’s critically important that you know what message you want to project and that you focus on communicating that message clearly and repeatedly.

Sharp and concise messages are the keys to a successful interview. You should never do an interview unless you know exactly what you want to say and what you want your audience to remember. Anticipate the issues and questions you’ll receive during an interview and equip yourself with short, memorable, positive and relevant messages. Decide what headline you’d like to see, or what you want your audience to remember. Always write down your messages and remember: they must be short, memorable, and relevant and you must be prepared to adjust to your medium.

During your interview, repeat your messages and be aware of the constraints of time. Although there will be interviews in which you’ll have the opportunity to talk at length, in the majority of interviews, it’s critical for you to have messages that fit into 12- to 15-second sound bites. Even though you have no control over the final story, you need to ensure each one of your answers is a “home run.”

You also need to be aware of what’s been on the evening news and in the morning papers prior to doing an interview. Reporters will know what’s in the news, so — to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation — familiarize yourself with the news of the day. So what is news?

It’s something different today than yesterday…surprising, unexpected, or counterintuitive. If you know what news is, you can link your message to what’s already in the news, which makes it more intriguing to your audience. The old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” is still true today. Stay abreast of current events that might outshine your agenda and be prepared to adjust your messages. Not all news is the same and you can use that to your advantage.

Regional, local, and trade press can help you reach important audiences. Because not all news is “hard news,” you should consider feature and trend articles as additional opportunities for communicating your message to the public.  “New media” (websites, on-line newsletters, blogs, internet news alerts) is an important new development that air show professionals should understand and embrace. These forms of media are providing the public with a larger and larger percentage of their news; they represent an important new tool for reaching out to your potential audience.

Interview Control Tactics

After you’ve developed your messages, your success in an interview is tied directly to the quality of your preparation, your ability to articulate your messages, and the level of control you exercise during the interview. Don’t think of an interview as a conversation and that you can “wing it.” View it instead as an opportunity for you to make a well-developed presentation reflecting research, preparation, and enthusiasm. Some basic tools you can use to control an interview and get your messages across include hooking, bridging, and flagging.

“Hooking” is taking advantage of opportunities before and during the interview to help focus on what you want to talk about, enticing the interviewer into your agenda and saying what’s on your mind; “what I’d really like to focus on in this interview is…”  You’ll be amazed how receptive an interviewer will be to this approach.  You can let reporters know upfront you have several points to make, and you can use this technique to maneuver the discussion where you want. Also, it lets the listener know you have several elements to cover:

“The first of the three elements involved in this issue…”

“There are two primary rationales…”

“We really have three important reasons for pursuing…”

You have to “hook” the listener/viewer immediately so they will continue to watch/listen to the very end.

“Bridging” is a smooth transition from the question asked to your messages. After briefly answering the question, “bridge” to your key messages. Some reliable bridges include, “What’s important to remember is. . .”, “Before we move on to another subject, I want to add…”, “Even more important. . .” or “The reason I’m here…”

“Flagging” is simply a way to underscore what’s important within your answers during the course of an interview. You can use voice inflection, a hand gesture, eye contact, body language or a phrase like “What is really critical to know about this issue…” You should ensure the reporter and the audience have a clear understanding of what you think is important.  Flagging focuses attention on your message and provides emphasis.  Always be positive, enthusiastic and confident and the audience will fall in step with your attitude.  Here are some reliable flagging statements; just add your message to the end:

“What the audience needs to know is. . . .”

“What I want to be sure you understand here is. . . .”

“The critical point is….”

“If there’s one point viewers need to understand….”

“I just need to emphasize….”

Repeating your message and proper preparation is the key to a successful interview. During an interview, repeat your messages to ensure your messages are remembered clearly by your interviewer to ensure they’re included in the final story.  If you walk away thinking that you over-emphasized your message, you’ve done well!

The Interview is About You and What You Have to Say

Now that you have the tools, let’s talk about some things you need to think about during the interview.

Your personal credibility is key and that means never forgetting that you are the expert. Use your personal knowledge and experience to avoid speaking about things in the abstract. In other words, if you can say, “I’ve flown the plane” or “I’ve talked to the men and women using the technology,” then you should say it. Not only is your credibility important, but, on television in particular, your appearance is everything. First impressions are usually the lasting ones.

Television has a tendency to flatten your personality and animation. When appearing on television, remember to sit up straight in your chair to compensate for that flattening effect.  The rest of the impression that you have on viewers will depend upon your voice, face, clothing, and the personal charm and credibility you bring to the interview. Don’t slouch, rock back and forth, swivel, or twitch in your chair. Make sure your facial expressions and hand gestures are appropriate to your words and the seriousness of the issue being discussed. Concentrate on your interviewer, maintain eye contact, and convey conviction and enthusiasm. And don’t forget: If you are boring the viewers at home, they’re looking for the remote control switch and you’ve lost a valuable opportunity.

There are several rules of engagement you should live by when doing any media interview. Prior to the interview, you should find out as much as you can about your interviewer and your audience. But don’t confuse the two. You need to understand the reporter’s motive. Although most reporters want to tell a fair story, they are not there to promote your agenda. Good reporters ask tough questions and tension and friction provide the leads they want. Always remember: reporters are looking for news.

That is why you should always consider yourself “on the record” and not say anything you don’t want to see in print or broadcast. Set the tone at the beginning of the interview because there’s nothing wrong with asking the reporter what you are going to be talking about. This puts you at ease and the interviewer in a defensive position. There’s another old saying that goes: “You won’t win an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel, or videotape by the case.” So don’t argue with the interviewer; you can’t win.

By the same token, there may be times when an interviewer is attempting to be confrontational, and you must “step up” to the situation to maintain control of the interview. Never let yourself become a passive participant in the interview. Always remember to speak in terms the public can understand and avoid air show and aviation acronyms, jargon, or technical terms. Your messages should be clearly understood by every member of your audience.

Remember to always correct and protect the record. Bad information has a way of propagating and taking on a life of its own unless challenged. If an interviewer asks you a question based upon false data, be sure to correct the record. Always answer honestly, but without saying “no comment.” If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s OK to say so and then bridge to one of your messages.

When a journalist asks if there’s anything else you’d like to add, the answer is: “Yes, what people need to understand is…” or another appropriate bridge to one of your core messages. It’s a great chance to summarize your messages, or use the opportunity to review anything you think got too little attention in the interview. Don’t ever relinquish this final opportunity!

Here are some important things to remember. The reporter is a professional and not your friend and nothing is ever “off the record.” What you say and do is public record, so take control with the first question. Always keep your cool and remain positive throughout the interview.  And remember that the camera or microphone is always on.

“Message is Money” and your interview is not your time to answer questions; it is your opportunity to present your messages.  The journalist in not “in charge,” you are and you use them or the media to tell your story, not just to answer a journalist’s questions. It’s your interview.

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Michelle Clougher
Michelle Glougher is Chief of Internal Public Affairs for the United States Air Force's Air Combat Command at Langley AFB in Virginia.