If you’ve managed to ascend to a position of leadership in your chosen field, having some level of exposure to the media is an inevitable part of the job. While the level of control a business has over its ‘owned’ media does provide a sense of safety and when ‘going viral’ feels like the cool thing to do, there is still little that provides the same level of reputation-enhancing, share-price raising and policymaker influencing boost like obtaining national coverage in the media, whether in print, online or broadcast.
Given how difficult it is to provide a successful interview performance, but knowing how easy it is to get it wrong and do near irreparable harm to your business and your career, it is still baffling to think of how little emphasis some business leaders give to understanding the media. How often do we hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth at the journalist who came with their own ‘agenda’ (how dare they!) or who ‘quoted them out of context’ or who should have realised that part of the conversation was ‘off the record’, as if that were a real thing? Here’s five things you should consider before your next encounter with a journalist:
1.Journalists don’t care about objective truth. Sorry to burst this bubble, but the overwhelming majority of reporters aren’t trying to win a British Journalism Award with every piece they write. But they’re probably not out to get you either. What they will have is a looming deadline and a word count to hit. This means they care more about getting their piece in on time than they do making sure you get the coverage you want.
2.Sometimes journalists do have their own agenda – it’s your job to work around it. If you were going to any other business meeting you would probably spend as much time working out what the other party wanted from it as you would working out what your objectives are – and why should a media interview be any different? Realise this and plot ways to get around it. Prepare for it and don’t take it personally. You will always come across worse.
3.Most interviewers know nothing about who you are and what you do. Especially true for broadcasters but even a specialist correspondent on a broadsheet doesn’t know every company in their sector. A former national TV reporter once told me that if he was lucky, he would have time to prepare one general starter question to get the interview started and then would be winging it and hoping that his interviewee would be interesting enough that he didn’t have to do anything but keep nudging the conversation along. Take advantage and control the conversation.
4.If you get misquoted, it’s no one’s fault but yours. Whether it’s ‘out of context’ or not, it’s your responsibility to manage the interaction and to ensure that the one thing you want the journalist to quote you on is what they actually write. Be clear about what the most important pieces of information you want to impart are and make sure you express them clearly, repeatedly and without using jargon. And if you are misquoted (and it’s not libellous) – tough. Demanding a retraction or slamming in a ‘letter to the editor’ is a waste of time.
5.THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS OFF THE RECORD! Not sure how this one hasn’t got across to everyone yet. You must assume that everything you say or sing can end up in print or being broadcast on the evening news. If you present the journalist with an interesting aside on a competitor, as you are shaking hands and leaving the interview, do not be surprised if that becomes the headline of the interview and all of the carefully crafted message and key information you imparted will have been forgotten in an instant.
Dealing with the media successfully requires a specialist set of skills which need to be dusted off and practiced regularly. If you’ve spent good money preparing your PR strategy and getting your key messages and proof points in place, failing to prepare for a successful interview makes no sense.