What to do When the Media Calls
The Marketing and University Communications staff has compiled a list of tips on how to have a pleasant interview experience with the media. The staff has drawn upon decades of experience they have working with the media, including nearly 25 years of cumulative experience as reporters. They also have asked for tips from other reporters currently working in the field and attended many seminars on how to improve interviews.
Preparing for the interview:
- Ask the reporter what his or her deadline is. For television and radio, deadlines are frequently within a matter of hours; deadlines for print can range from hours to days. Meeting the reporter's deadline is key to maintaining a good relationship – and assuring that your story is told.
- Find out where the interview will take place. Newspaper reporters often prefer phone interviews. Television reporters usually will come to your office, though they sometimes will ask you to come to their studio. NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX all have local studios in downtown Stockton.
- It's a good idea to let your supervisor or department chairperson know that a reporter has contacted you and what this reporter wanted to know. Your supervisor or department chairperson may have some valuable information on the topic at hand. It's also possible that the reporter is "calling around." This usually happens when the issue under discussion is controversial and the reporter is trying to get various – sometimes contradictory – comments. Talking with your supervisor under this scenario helps make sure we provide accurate and consistent information.
- Ask what the story is about and what the interviewer wants exactly. Do they need to see copies of supporting documents, to also speak with a colleague or a student who worked on the project?
- If it’s a newspaper reporter, arrange a time that is convenient for you. Remember some interviews last more than 30 minutes.
- If the issue is rather complicated to explain over the phone, invite the journalist for a face-to-face interview or offer to e-mail facts and material to avoid misreporting.
- Write down key points you wish to make and keep relevant materials by the phone or nearby. Finish your call when you have made your points and don’t want to make any more. Develop your core messages by focusing on a small number of key points. Pretend you’re writing the headline, sub headline and the main point of the story.
- Before the reporters arrive, take a few minutes to ask a colleague, co-worker or even a student to discuss that subject with you to help warm up and focus your answers. In television, they usually won’t use more than 30 seconds of an answer, so try and stick to at least three primary points.
- Gather facts, statistics and background information. Practice getting your message across before the interview.
- If there are photos that might illustrate the story or your point better, tell the reporter about it and ask if they need help getting the photo.
- If the reporter is bringing a photographer, think of a place where there might be better lighting or better visuals. Take your time and be relaxed. Television reporters usually will want to meet and film you somewhere, often in an outdoor space that will give them a nice image on television. Don't wear white or black. White can cause glare on camera. Black can make you difficult to see in a photo. Dark colors are better than lighter colors. Also, avoid stripes or ties with complex patterns.
During the Interview:
- Tell the truth. Don't fake it. If you don't know the answer to a question, admit it and offer to contact the reporter as soon as you get the answer.
- State important facts first.
- Be friendly and polite in tone, but be firm if necessary.
- Stay alert of what you say and make sure your posture and facial expression are in keeping with your tone and gesture throughout the interview.
- Take your time. Don’t rush answers. Reporters won’t use everything you say and most likely will paraphrase most of it.
- Think carefully before answering. Formulate a response in your head before answering. If you need a question repeated, ask the reporter to repeat it.
- Avoid complex explanations. Answer the questions as if you were talking to a first-year student. Avoid using jargon or too much technical information. You might understand it, but chances are no one outside of your field does.
- Remember there is no such thing as “Off the Record.” Everything you utter can be quoted, despite what the reporter promises. Even if the camera is off or the notebook is away, they may still quote you. Reporters can forget where they heard something. DO NOT SAY ANYTHING THAT YOU DO NOT WANT SHARED WITH THE ENTIRE WORLD!
- Beware of Silence! One common trick of print reporters is to be silent on the phone, causing awkward pauses. The natural inclination is to fill those moments by talking more. Reporters hope this will make you give more information than you first intended. Don’t fall for that trick.Know when to stop talking. When you’ve made your points, stop and wait for the reporter.
- Keep your cool. Don't argue with a reporter. You may win the battle, but in the long run, you will lose the war.
- Avoid risky remarks. Don't use comments that can be misinterpreted by a reporter or editor such as off-color jokes or sarcasm.
- It’s normal to be nervous, but try to project confidence.
- Never say "no comment." You appear guilty, untrustworthy and evasive. You want to leave the reporter with the impression of being open, honest and accessible.
After the Interview:
- Thank the interviewer and end the session.
- Don’t buddy up to the reporter or share additional information. Remember, you’re always on the record.
- After a television interview, don’t leave the chair or take off the clip microphone immediately. Wait until the reporter or producer says it’s okay. The camera is likely to be still on you for a few more seconds as the anchor says, “Thanks for being on our show. That was Professor XYZ from the University of Edinburgh.” They sometimes like to have a few seconds of video after the talking ends to give it a more natural transition. In the case of a taped TV interview, the reporter may shoot some “cutaways”. These are shots of the reporter nodding or wide shots of you and the reporter in the interview setting for editing purposes.
- As a general rule, most reporters will never show you a story before it goes to print. Many find it insulting when asked because it implies mistrust on your part. So please avoid doing so.
- However, feel free to tell the reporter to call you back if they need any more assistance or need any points clarified. Give them a number that you can easily be reached at and make sure to return their phone calls promptly.
- To double check for accuracy, you may request the reporter to send you or read you the quotes they will use for the story before it goes to print.
- It's OK to ask when a story will run.
Tips for Television
- Keep the answers short and to the point, but provide some background to the topic.
- Look at the reporter, not the camera. Call him or her by name.
- Move your hands and use gestures that come natural to you, but keep your head steady.
- Wear simple patterned clothes and solid-colored ties to the interview. Dark solids are better. Things with patterns tend to jump around on the television.
Tips for Radio
- With radio, answers can be longer than television interviews. Live radio interviews can go on for nearly 20 minutes. Pre-recorded interviews that will be edited for a newscast later can use complex answers that run up to 90 seconds.
- The pace is often faster than television, so be prepared for quick questions. Beware that the interviewer may not be looking at you at all but instead might be flipping through notes or talking to a technician while you are answering. Just pretend they are listening because you are still being recorded.
- Since no one can see you in the radio studio, you can bring your own written notes. But make sure you don’t READ them. Be conversational. A good tip is to put general points and background in your notes. Then talk as if you are explaining the topic to your neighbor.
- Make sure your tone of vice sounds enthusiastic. There’s no body language to help you convey your enthusiasm, so talk as if you’re talking to a friendly acquaintance.
- Use the ‘you’ word – as if you’re talking to one person and try and use powerful, imaginative words and phrases.
- Try not to ramble. Pause before you make a new point and be concise.
- Breathe deeply and relax. Remember that your responsibility is to get your message across.