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Imagine you’re a startup founder who just had a journalist email you about your new mobile app. Or you’re a writer with a new book who is emailed by a freelancer. Or you just opened a new retail store and the local newspaper wants to get in touch.
What happens next?
Either you have a PR person who can guide you through these processes or you don’t.
If you don’t (or even if you do and just need some advice), here’s what’s next.
Remember: 99% of media interviews are non-adversarial. This post is written from the assumption that you/your company aren’t engaged in wrongdoing, that you haven’t said anything awful on Twitter, that your employees aren’t doing awful things or that your book/music/film isn’t at the center of a media outrage cycle. If that’s the case, call a firm that specializes in crisis PR instead of reading this.
But it’s probably not the case.
Here’s what to keep in mind when talking with a journalist.
Be realistic about outcomes
A reporter may be interviewing you for a short quote in a longer piece about someone else.
Don’t be disappointed if you are interviewed for an hour for a one paragraph mention in a story.
You may be getting interviewed for a larger piece in a smaller publication or a smaller piece in a larger publication.
Occasionally you will be getting interviewed for a well-promoted, New York Times or Wall Street Journal piece.
In other words, don’t be disappointed if you are interviewed for an hour for a one paragraph mention in a story or if the article is never published at all.
By building a relationship with the reporter, today’s phone call for a single quote in a trend story can lead to next year’s 1000 word feature article.
Make things easy for the reporter
The journalist interviewing you is most likely overworked, underpaid, and lacking researchers and fact-checkers helping them with their output.
Even worse, you have no guarantee that they fully understand the subject they’re writing about.
One of the best ways to make sure you and your company/product are portrayed as well as possible is to make everything as easy as possible for them.
In advance of the interview, ask your interviewer to email examples of questions they plan and/or topics they want to ask you about. If they push back, explain that you want to be as prepared as possible for talking to them.
Additionally, send the reporter background information a day or two before the interview. If your book has a media kit or your company has a demo video of your new product, send it.
In addition, if there are any professional-quality photos or videos you have ready for promotional use that can be included with the article, send those as well.
For in-person interviews
Post-pandemic, journalists increasingly either work remotely or are only at their office several days a week.
Make sure you have conference software already installed with the latest updates ahead of the interview.
I strongly recommend choosing a place for a journalist to meet you, both for home field advantage (somewhere you’re comfortable with and know how to get to) and for convenience (so you’re not traveling a half hour out of your way).
I don’t recommend asking a reporter to meet you at a Starbucks or another coffee shop. There’s no guarantee of seating, the background noise may be too loud, and the risk of disruptions like long lines to order may be too high.
Instead, meet at your office, at a hotel with acceptable lobby seating, at a casual restaurant without loud background music, or at a rented conference room at a co-working space.
If at a restaurant or coffee shop, please be aware that many publications forbid journalists from letting sources buy them meals or coffee – don’t take it personally.
For phone interviews
Use a landline instead of a mobile phone; mobiles have a habit of having poor reception just when you need to be clear. Find a quiet place to speak with no or limited background noise.
If using a mobile phone, make sure you have full bars and a full battery beforehand.
For video interviews
Be clear ahead of time that your invitation to the interview says whether you’ll be talking via Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, or whichever other platform of choice you’ll be connecting on — with a link if possible. Make sure you have that software already installed with the latest updates ahead of the interview.
Test your video and audio the day of the interview.
Check your lighting and background noise ahead of time; you want to avoid both pure lighting or using a poor-quality microphone where the journalist keeps asking “can you repeat that?” during the call.
Finally, pay attention to your surroundings. If you work from an office, make sure it’s clean and presentable in advance. If you work from home, make sure that you check your camera space beforehand for anything that may be objectionable or negatively impact your presentation.
A journalist interview is not a sales pitch or a police interrogation. It’s an interview.
The journalist has their own goals for the story they’re doing; these goals are irrelevant to you. Your goals are to present you/your organization/your products and services in the best possible way. You want to avoid confusing the journalist, you want to avoid gaffes or sharing information you don’t want to share, you want to avoid lying and you want to influence the journalist to write the article in the way that best benefits you.
When you speak with the journalist, make sure to communicate in clear language and avoid industry jargon whenever possible. Remember that you’re really speaking with the journalist’s audience and not the journalist.
Write down 3-5 bullet points you want the journalist to include beforehand.
If there are any questions you don’t want to answer, just politely deflect. You don’t have to answer every question. If they persist, ask them to ask you about something else. You don’t have to discuss your company’s pricing if you’re not ready or the specifics of your book tour if the logistics are still in the works. Be polite and shift the subject to questions you can answer.
Lastly, I also recommend writing down in advance 3-5 bullet points you want the journalist to include in their article. Use these as talking points for the conversation. An interview is a two-way conversation and you want to make sure your talking points are included.
I often recommend interviewees end their interviews by telling the journalist “Well, there’s one question I wish you had asked. Do you mind if I include it?” Answering that question gives you the change to close the interview in your court and include any talking points you may not have had the chance to include.
One important thing: Most trustworthy independent publications will not allow story sources or interviewees to review the contents of an article in advance or have any say over printed quotes. This may vary for advertorial content or in-house publications, of course.
However, I strongly recommend interviewees ask journalists to fact-check any statistics and facts included in the article by email with them.
This both gives a chance to avoid any typos or incorrect information being shared and gives you a written record if anything goes awry.
When the journalist sends a fact-checking email, try to reply the same business day if possible.
Lastly, email the journalist after your meeting thanking them for their time and also offering any additional information you were not able to include in the interview.