C-suiters everywhere scramble for advice about how to walk a fine line with the press while also appearing genuine. Because it isn’t just about crisis moments. Every press exposure is a chance to tell a compelling story that furthers your organization’s goals. Or to spout about like a drunken uncle at a family reunion.
Here’s the thing, though. Dealing with the press is a little like dealing with a serial monogamist. You’ve got to understand that, no matter how much you enjoy their company, they’re going to move on. It’s part of the job. No matter how much they like you, they’re going to stay behind the press ropes if you trip over your own feet and slip under the bus. It’s how they became to be known as the fourth estate. Just a couple of years before that wonderfully bucolic time known as the French Revolution.
An article on the PR News Blog provides nine tips to master before the next media interview. The key here is “master,” not quickly memorize and begin tap dancing like you’re a millennially hip version of Fred Astaire.
Here are the tips, paraphrased and in order, along with some needed extra advice that should keep your C-suiter on message and not looking like a clueless sexter with his truth shorts around his ankles:
- Stay Focused on WIIFM (What’s In It for Me): As in, what’s in it for the reporter and the audience. Fair enough. Just remember how it feels when you see a salesperson trying to oversell an idea to your relative or friend. You’re ready to jump in and call the person on their game. So are reporters. And so are most audiences other than those that applaud the presenter at in-studio infomercials.
- State Your Main Point 3 Times: Here’s something a wise older person once said: “Notify me once. Twice is annoying. Three times is harassment.” You’ll get a break on the first repetition. By the second, we’re hoping you’re finally down for the count. If you must stick to the Rule of Threes, at least be creative enough in your delivery that it sounds like two or less.
- Research the Reporter and Their Last Three Stories: And then be prepared to get nailed by what you missed from the 997 stories before that. Patterns show up in anyone’s coverage or writing. Assume that that’s all the reporter is about, though, and you won’t just be looking at hardball questions. Beanballs and brushback pitches are more like it. Is your exec – assuming they sell more than mere novelties — the sum total of their last three phone calls?
- Google Yourself, the Company and the Reporter: And then ask yourself what you would want to know about all three that already isn’t on Google. That’s what reporters do. If they want their editors to keep working with them.
- Prepare to Answer Difficult Questions: May we add—in ways that don’t patronize or condescend. Or, worse, in ways that tell the audience they’re supposed to think you answered the question when you never answered any part of it. Tough questions are your way to stand up and be counted. To protect your interests without cheapening anyone else’s. Be a mensch/grow a pair.
- Use Stories and Analogies: But only if you didn’t get them from Google, a forwarded e-mail, your kid’s homework or – and this is where we all must draw the line – your drunken uncle at a family reunion. Remember: Stories are for bedtime. Unless they can be told in three average-length sentences or less. Too short, you think? Don’t worry. Reporters will always ask for more. When, indeed, they truly want more.
- Always Answer the Question: As PR News says, “Better to say ‘I will look into that’ than ‘No comment.’” No argument there.
- Practice Bridging Strategies: Which is a nice way of saying, be ready to change the subject. Just do it smoothly. Not. Smooth, rough, silly or stupid – you just changed the subject. And every reporter’s inner alarm just went off. Be prepared to be dragged back across that bridge. By an increasingly restless mob. By whatever hair you still might have left. Anywhere.
- End on a Good Note: But not if the bulk of the discussion has centered on something serious, unresolved and/or a disservice to the public. Otherwise, you’ll end up sounding like that neighbor who drones through a lengthy litany of complaints. Only to pause awkwardly and say, with a weak smile, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” If things are serious, especially when deadly so, a genuine look into the camera or reporters’ collective eyes along with a well-meaning exit line are all that’s needed. Or you’ll forever be lumped in with Ned Flanders from The Simpsons.
The PR News article adds the salient point that reporters are “not usually trying to stump you.” Neither, of course, is any reporter worth the estate status going to serve up easy questions for the entirety of the interview.
It’s also worth noting that, however tough the questions, reporters are interested in getting beyond the sound bites and the company line. And then seeing if what’s behind all of that holds up under scrutiny, or slinks away from the light.
Anything worth the price of admission should stand front and center instead of cowering behind the scenery.