Don’t Get Caught with Your Pants Down

October 20, 2016

As PR professionals, we are responsible for making our clients look good in front of media—no if’s, and’s or but’s—that’s what they pay us for. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. There’s nothing worse than going into an interview with the media and your spokesperson says the wrong thing or isn’t prepared and stumbles around for the right words. These mishaps can damage relationships with your clients and with the media. To help prevent these situations, I recommend following these best practices so you (and your client) don’t get caught with your pants down.


Understand your spokesperson—their strengths and weaknesses

Sometimes we have spokespeople who think they know how to handle a media interview because they are the subject content expert, but don’t know anything about how to tell a story, develop key messages and lead the reporter in the direction they want to take with the interview. Sometimes we have spokespeople who are naturals and need very little coaching. Regardless, as someone in the field of advising on the best ways to approach media interviews, you should understand what kind of spokesperson you have on your hands, what makes them good or bad, and identify what tools will help them be successful.

When you bring on a new client, you should consider watching any video interviews or listening to any podcasts to get a sense of what kind of spokesperson you have on your hands. Even asking them to provide an overview of their company, goals, culture, etc. in person (or over the phone) will give you a sense of how well they can convey messages, frame content and tell stories. Look for a few things during this conversation: did the company overview make sense? Is the language branded to current materials? Are they long-winded or too concise? Does the language sound natural or too marketing-like. At this point, you should be able to identify your spokesperson’s top three strengths and weaknesses. An effective PR pro will convey these across to spokespeople in order to benchmark progress and determine different ways to build the weaknesses into strengths.


Dig into what you want your spokesperson to say

Whether your spokesperson already has defined messaging or if they need an entire revamp, you’ll need to determine with your spokesperson what they’re going to say before they say it. Regardless of the topic, you should follow these four main points of messaging development for any kind of interviews.

  • What’s the big picture your spokesperson is trying to get across? Determine your spokesperson’s key message, or the umbrella statement to the target audience. This could be the main reason why they’re in business, or why they’re technology helps to solve a specific problem.
  • What are his/her 2 or 3 support statements/claims? Supporting statements expand on the key message explaining how, what, when, where and how. There are ample opportunities with the key message and supporting statements to include “soundbites” which will be those specific moments in the interview that the reporter will glean onto and create the headline or opening paragraph from.
  • How can your spokesperson prove these statements? Arm your spokesperson with hard evidence and don’t assume a reporter will take their word for it. Media LOVE data, so any data points you can bring that they’ve never heard of will be important. Data points also justify the supporting statements.
  • What does your spokesperson want the reader/viewer to do with this information? Information is far more powerful when you put it to use, so you need a call to action. This can come in many forms, so think about your key message(s), your audience and what you want them to do, whether it’s download a new version of a product, donate money to a cause, or read a study on something relevant to the specific industry.


Practice, practice, practice

Once you’ve put some time in with your spokesperson to find out his/her strengths/weaknesses and determined the appropriate messaging, spend extra cycles with them to practice and increase their comfort level in interviews.

A mock on-camera interview is usually a great step with a first time spokesperson, so they can see themselves answering questions and give them a taste of what to expect. They’ll most likely see their own strengths and weaknesses. Play the part of the reporter and come prepared with questions. You should review these questions ahead of time with your spokesperson, though throw in a random question as well to help practice bridging – one of the techniques below. These techniques are very useful for spokespeople when they reach uncomfortable moments during the interview, want to emphasize a specific point or lead the reporter down a road of questioning.

  • Bridging – Reporters sometimes throw in curveballs about topics unrelated to the story at hand. To prepare your spokesperson, teach them how to bridge – a transition from one topic to a subject your spokesperson wants to talk about. One of the most popular bridging techniques is “I’m not sure about that, but what I do know is…”
  • Flagging – This is the simplest and most effective way to ensure that reporters recognize key messages. Simply suggest your spokesperson emphasize the main point or points you want the reporter to remember. There are many variations; here’s one: “What your audience needs to know is…”
  • Hedging – This will help your spokesperson buy extra time if he/she is nervous or the question wasn’t anticipated. Essentially, train your spokesperson to ask the reporter for further clarification on a specific question. This will buy them an extra 30-60 seconds to gather their thoughts.
  • Hooking – This technique leads reporters to ask the questions you want them to ask. Bringing up a certain topic in your statement is one way of hooking as it usually leads a reporter to ask about that topic. Another is to logically prompt the interviewer to follow-up on the first message allowing your spokespeople to get a second or third one in. Here’s an example: “There are three customer benefits to <insert topic>, let me start off by telling you about the first…”
  • Framing – With this technique spokespeople present conclusions or call to actions first. This sounds odd, but their time talking with a reporter will be limited. Once they’ve laid out their conclusion they can then support the statement with facts and then restate their point to close.


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