‘Control’ is a word that comes up regularly in media training.
Our current working journalists will regularly talk about the importance of trying to control an interview through techniques like ‘bridging’.
Type ‘control’ and ‘media training’ into Google and you will see plenty of tips and advice – it does in fact return 645 million results.
But one I stumbled across recently stood out. It argued that the only thing spokespeople can control in an interview is the words that come out their mouth.
It said: “When you sit down with a reporter you have no control over how prepared the reporter is, what questions the reporter asks, whether the reporter likes you or finds your content interesting, how the reporter’s editors might change the story, what the headline will be, how long the story will be, what the reporter will quote, who else the reporter will interview, or what overall angle a reporter will take in the story.”
It’s an interesting point, but also quite a simplistic one.
Here’s why I think it’s wrong and why spokespeople actually have far more control than this suggests.
No control over questions
This is true to an extent, but it is not the complete story.
Some spokespeople and their PR teams ask to see questions in advance as a way of taking some control over the questions.
But it rarely works – if you are lucky you may be given an indication of what the first question might be about.
However, there is a much more subtle and successful way of taking control over the questions during the interview itself.
It is a technique we refer to on our media training courses as signposting.
It is a skill which makes it obvious to the reporter that you have something interesting to say if they ask the right question.
For example, if you finished an answer by saying something along the lines of ‘but that’s not the most important thing’ or ‘that’s not even the key thing’, the reporter is likely to ask ‘so what is the most important thing?’.
Not only does it give you some control over the direction of the interview, but it also allows you to lead the journalist to your key message and tells the audience to pay attention as you are about to say something particularly interesting.
The other great thing about this technique is it sounds natural. It is something we do in conversations every day when we say things like ‘you’ll never guess what happened next’ or ‘I couldn’t believe what happened next’.
When it comes to controlling questions, one thing spokespeople should definitely avoid is saying to the reporter ‘ask me about this’ – not surprisingly, they don’t like being told how to do their job.
No control over how prepared the journalist is
Can spokespeople control this? No. Should this be something they are worried about? No.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a spokesperson express any concern about how prepared a reporter might be.
And with good reason, because it should not be a concern. It is much more important spokespeople focus on their own preparation ahead of media interviews.
I’ve heard one of our current working journalist tutors say before 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 say that unless a spokesperson is being interviewed by a sector specialist, that is a pretty good yardstick.
No control over whether a reporter finds the story interesting
I’m not sure the journalist’s interest level is particularly relevant – it is the audience’s interest levels that are the bigger concern.
As a journalist I covered lots of stories I was not particularly interested in, but if they were newsworthy, and relevant to my audience, then I would cover them.
And it is the newsworthy bit that is crucial. If the reporter feels they are struggling to get a newsworthy story out of an interview they will begin to look for a different angle by trying to move the conversation on to different topics, ensuring the spokesperson loses control.
Control over the angle a reporter will take with a story / Control how the reporter’s editor might change the story
I’ve grouped these two points together because, while they are technically correct, there are steps spokespeople can take to exert considerable control on this.
When I take part in telephone interviews on our media training courses, I often find myself putting in the feedback that the spokesperson should look to start the interview by providing a brief outline of the points they want to get across and then provide a short summary at the end of the interview.
Why? Well because it gives the journalist a clear idea of where the spokesperson believes the focus should be and give the spokesperson some control from the start.
Obviously, you can’t do this in a broadcast interview but you can still look to have this sort of conversation before recording starts or the programme goes live.
Just make sure you don’t start the TV or radio interview by saying something along the lines of ‘can I start by saying three things’ - this sounds completely scripted and unnatural and will irritate the journalist (and audience).
No control over what quotes are used
The spokesperson actually has considerable control over this part as, after all, the journalist can only quote what they say.
But there are ways of making sure they use the parts you want them to focus on.
Expressing a view with conviction and enthusiasm and repeating it throughout the interview will make it clear to the journalist where you think the focus should be.
'Expressing a view with conviction and enthusiasm and repeating it throughout the interview will make it clear to the journalist where you think the focus should be' via @mediafirstltd http://bit.ly/2JNPRCd
Having a strong point of view and being bold also helps.
But it is also important to keep messages simple and tight. Long rambling sections are neither good for broadcast sound bites or printable quotes.
No control over what the headline might be
Control of headlines lies with sub-editors, but it is based on the story that is in front of them.
So if you have got your messages across and have kept control of the interview, the headline should be along the lines of what you would expect it to be.
No control over the length of the story
There are many factors at play when it comes to length and prominence of a story.
Some, such as what else happens to be on the news agenda, are, of course, beyond the spokesperson’s control.
But there are things they can do to improve their chances of better coverage.
The more interesting things they have to say and the more examples they can use to support their messages, the more newsworthy their content is likely to be.
Human angles are also crucial. People like stories about other people, not policies and procedures, and the more human elements that can be brought into a story, the more interesting it will be for journalists and their audience.
No control over who else the reporter will interview
No, spokespeople don’t have any control over this, but the media team can and should find out whether other people are being interviewed as part of the news package.
This is particularly true for broadcast interviews and it is perfectly reasonable to ask who else will be taking part.
If it is a live studio debate interview with multiple spokespeople, you need to think about how you can ensure your spokespersons views can be heard without them appearing rude or aggressive.
So, if you attend one of our media training courses you will continue to hear us talk about the importance of control.
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.
Click here to find out more about our journalist-led media training courses.