Not all advice is good advice.
And when it comes to media interviews there are plenty of views and opinions which just don’t hold up.
You could call them myths.
The problem is that many of them appear over and over again and that can be confusing for spokespeople with little experience and limited understanding of the media.
In this blog we tackle nine of these frequently recurring myths and misconceptions.
The journalist will let you see the questions in advance
As a journalist I lost track of the number of times I was asked whether the person I was preparing to interview could see the questions in advance.
When I worked in media relations I was also often asked by spokespeople if I could speak to a journalist and find out what questions they would be asking in an interview.
In both cases the answer was ‘no’.
Journalists will not give away their questions before an interview, not because they want to trick or trap the spokesperson, but because they don’t want the interview to appear rehearsed.
The best you can hope for if you ever take this approach is to be given a rough idea of what the first question ‘might’ be about.
You can’t control a media interview
Here’s the thing – some media trainers will tell you that you can’t control a media interview.
The argument is based on the idea that you can’t control what questions the reporter asks, what angle they will take, how the story will be edited and who else will be included in the item.
But we differ from that approach and believe there are a number of media training tools spokespeople can use to exert control over the interview and steer the conversation to the topic they want to get across.
Things like bridging, signposting and even setting out at the start of a print interview the key points you want to get across are all great ways of taking some control of the interview.
You will be able to see the story before it runs
Asking whether you can see a story before it is published is arguably one of the most annoying questions you can ask a journalist.
Not only does it portray a complete lack of trust but it is also completely pointless – no reporter with any credibility is ever going to agree to this. They are not writing a press release for your organisaiton.
While you can control what you say to a journalist, you cannot ultimately expect to have any control over what they do with those words.
The journalist will be well prepared
You might think that the journalist will be coming to your interview having done a lot of research.
But it is not always the case.
In these times where cutbacks have hit many newsrooms, time-pressed journalists may not have time to do more than some top-level research.
One of our current working journalist tutors recently said that journalists make good dinner party guests because they have a bit of knowledge about a broad range of subjects, but that knowledge does not run too deep.
I would suggest that is a pretty good guide for an interview unless it is being carried out by a sector specialist.
But rather than worrying about how prepared a journalist might be, a far better approach is to concentrate on your own preparation.
You can dodge challenging questions
Turn on the news and you will usually find an example of a politician trying to evade a question.
Typically, it will see them answer the question they wanted to be asked rather than the one actually put to them by the journalist.
Journalists and the public hate this slippery evasiveness and it can result in a question being asked numerous times, like the infamous Jeremy Paxman interview with Michael Howard, or in interviews being abruptly ended, which happened more recently to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.
It sounds simple, but the best approach is to answer tough and challenging questions and then look to move the story on. At the very least, the question needs to be acknowledged.
It is also worth pointing out that, while not ideal, it is ok for a spokesperson to say that they don’t know the answer to a specific question.
If you are going to use this approach, try to steer the conversation back to what you do know through the bridging technique. So you could say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that specific question, but what I can tell you is…’
Don’t be tempted to add the words ‘I’m no expert’ when admitting you don’t know an answer – it can damage your credibility.
It doesn’t matter if you haven’t done an interview for a while
To be an effective media spokesperson you really need to keep on top of your interview skills.
It is not like riding a bike – you can’t just pick it up and start peddling after a lengthy absence.
The media landscape constantly evolves and the skills decline if they are not used regularly.
If you haven’t done an interview for a while it is a good idea to get some refresher media training before your next interview.
I know the subject, I don’t need to prepare
It’s good to feel confident and feel you have a good grasp of your topic, but there is so much more to preparing for an interview than simply knowing your subject.
Do you know what the main message is you want to get across>? Do you have relatable examples and facts and figure you can use to support it?
Have you considered the negative questions that the journalist might bring in the interview? What about the wider issues in your sector which might be of interest?
It is also important to consider who the journalist is and who they work for as different reporters and media outlet will take different approaches to stories.
An interview with the Daily Mail, for example, may well have a very different stance to an interview with a regional radio station.
I can go off the record
And our advice is that you shouldn’t. The best approach is to assume that everything you tell a journalist could appear and be attributed to you.
If you are not comfortable with having something attributed to you, don’t say it at all.
One of the key issues with ‘off the record’ is that it has no legal significance. It is purely a matter of trust between you and the reporter you are speaking to.
The better you know the reporter, the lower the risk, but the risk factor is always there when you choose to go ‘off the record’.
You should avoid ‘err’ and ‘umm’
I can remember going through a media training course a long time ago (with another provider) and feeling a lot of pressure to cut out the ‘errs’ and ‘umms’.
But does it really matter?
They are pretty natural and are used in everyday conversation and no-one will really notice if they are used occasionally.
And they are a lot less distracting than the space fillers spokespeople often use, such as ‘like, ‘basically’, ‘you know’ and ‘look’ to buy themselves a little thinking time.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.