Your plant experiences a hazardous spill or other upset such as an odour release. You invoke your emergency plan to get the word out to the authorities and the community. Once the media finds out, reporters flock to the scene and start peppering your staff with questions:
• What happened?
• How bad is it?
• What went wrong?
• Who is to blame for this? How do you answer the questions? Who from your firm should answer the questions?
Whether your municipal or industrial plant has good news to share — such as an excellent safety record — or bad news such as the leak of hazardous materials, company executives have to be prepared to talk to the media. What executives and managers say can have a lasting impact on your business because the media helps shareholders, stakeholders, politicians and other Canadians form opinions. That’s why only designated spokespersons should talk to reporters. But before executives talk to reporters they need to prepare.
Spokespersons should review key messages, which means your executive team should develop key messages for various situations. Executives should know how to weave key messages into answers and they should also know how to answer difficult questions, especially if managing a crisis.
For instance, if you are dealing with a crisis, say only what you are authorized to say. That means, before you are interviewed, you need to know what you can say.
If there is an explosion or, say, an odour release at your place of business, reporters will want to know the cause. You might know the cause, or suspect the cause, but until the cause has been officially determined by the appropriate authorities, it is perfectly legitimate to say (in the case of an explosion or fire): “The Fire Marshall’s Office is investigating and they will release the results once their investigation is complete.” No matter how many times reporters ask you about the cause of the explosion, simply repeat what you are authorized to say: “The Fire Marshall’s Office is investigating and they will release the results once their investigation is complete.”
In most instances, however, you will not be managing a crisis per se?. Instead, you’ll be dealing with reporters following up on media releases sent out by your company to promote a new product, service, or event. You still want to know your key messages and use them, in an appropriate manner, when asking questions.
For instance, if a journalist were writing an article about my media training services, I would expect the journalist to ask: “When did you start to conduct media training?” I could say, “In 2000.” However, why wouldn’t I answer the question like this: “Business owners and executives often have difficulty telling their stories to reporters. In 2000, I started to conduct media interview training to help business owners and executives prepare for media interviews. Two years ago, I also started to work with non-profit organizations.”
I still answered the question honestly: “in 2000.” However, notice that in less than 15 seconds I worked in a problem, a solution and my target audience. The three points are integral parts of my key messages.
If you keep this basic interview principle in mind — you cannot control the questions but you can control your answers — you can actively prepare for interviews. By controlling your answers, you can actually influence the questions because the information you supply may spark questions the reporter had not planned to ask. In other words, if you say something interesting, the reporter will often ask follow-up questions. Even though you cannot write the story (or control the final edit of a radio or TV broadcast), you can influence the direction of the story. There are no guarantees that what you say will make it into the story, unless you are interviewed live on air; however, if you don’t convey your key messages, you won’t get your story out.
To prepare for your interview, think about the impression you want to make and the most pertinent information you want to convey to readers or viewers. Write out potential questions and your answers. When you are being interviewed, keep your answers short and focused — about 30 to 60 seconds per answer. Supplement the answers with a few anecdotes about your products, services, or customers that help demonstrate what you want to say. If possible, get permission to “drop the name” of an established customer or a customer who has derived great benefits by working with you.
As you answer different questions, judiciously repeat key messages for emphasis, but make sure you also answer the questions, if authorized to do so, so you don’t sound like you’re in “spin” mode (like a politician during an election campaign — or at any time, come to think of it!).
This might sound simple to do; however, unless you prepare for interviews, you might forget to convey the information you want to express, you might convey the wrong information, or you might convey information that circumstances dictate should be held back until you are authorized to release it. If you prepare, you’ll be able to articulately reply to simple, complex, or confrontational questions.
Paul Lima is a Toronto-based freelance writer and media interview trainer. Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org