Dealing with journalists can be intimidating. Getting an article in a national newspaper or trade magazine, or an interview on the news, is a potentially appealing prospect that can raise your company’s profile or promote your latest new product. But journalists have a reputation for twisting peoples’ words, one that is at least partially justified. Having spent much of my career as a journalist, I am well aware of the disconnect that often exists between the story people expect to be written going into an interview, and the one that actually is.
Politicians and executives who frequently deal with journalists receive media training, where they learn the art of evading difficult questions and speaking for minutes on end without actually saying anything. However, you certainly don’t need extensive media training to have a constructive and rewarding interaction with a journalist.
1. Be punctual
Journalists, like most other people, are too busy to enjoy having their time wasted. They will likely lose patience if you keep them waiting around because you are late to a meeting. Nobody wants to be treated like someone’s lowest priority.
2. Be prepared
Have a clear idea of what you want to say before the interview. This will help you steer the conversation to where you want it to go, and avoid pointless rambling, or accidentally revealing something that would be better kept out of the public domain.
3. Be personable
Journalists are human too, and, as such, will be at least a little influenced by their overall impression of you. Being cold with them only increases the chance of them returning the favour.
4. Be cautious
If dealing with the print media specifically it may be possible to arrange to speak off the record, with an agreement that quotes can be used if they are checked first for approval. Not every publication will agree to this, but most of the trade press are used to engaging with large financial institutions on these terms and may be happy to oblige. After all, it is in their interests to get the facts of their story right, too.
5. Be considerate
If you do proceed with an interview on this basis, be sparing with your quote changes. Correcting inaccuracies and simplifying confusing language is fine but rewriting a quote to make an entirely different point is not. It may lead to the story being dropped or souring future relations.
6. Be generous
Prepare written material that you can share. This could include graphs, figures and background information – anything to provide context. When it is time to write the story the journalist will be grateful for information that supplements any notes they have taken. It will also help ensure accuracy and could help steer the story in the desired direction.
7. Be relevant
Stay on current and interesting topics. Journalists will likely zone out if you give them your marketing spiel: their job isn’t to sell your product or to give you free advertising. But they will be interested in new products, services or hires that you have recently made or have coming up, or your thoughts on the theme they are writing about.
8. Be concise
You don’t have to be monosyllabic – in fact you don’t want to be – but it is easy to say far more than you intend to. You may find yourself waffling on to the point that what you are saying no longer has much relevance to the question you were asked.
9. Be straightforward
Minimize your use of jargon, keep it simple. Journalists may or may not understand industry-specific jargon, but their readers likely won’t. Moreover, confusing a journalist only increases the risk of inaccuracies creeping into the story. Convey your message simply and it is sure to be understood, meaning the story is more likely to be fair and accurate.
Analogies go a long way. Journalists want to write stories that people enjoy reading, and compelling – dare I even say amusing? – quotes help them to do that. Analogies help journalists grasp the significance of subtle or complex arguments and help them convey that to their readers.
An interview with a journalist needn’t be a zero-sum game. It is perfectly possible for you to retain some control over your own narrative, while also giving journalists a story that will be of interest to their readers. Keeping these basic principles in mind will help you walk that line.
By Sol Teague
Learn more about working with the media from our Meet the Press podcast series.