Media interviews can be a bit like buses.
There can be times when you have little opportunity to put your media training skills to the test.
And there can be other occasions when you are in high demand and rarely out of the news.
One of the crucial challenges you can face during those busier times is when you need to give several interviews on the same day.
This was something I was asked about recently by a former colleague whose comms and PR career has taken him around the world, working on everything from Olympic Games and World Cups to local councils and transport operators.
He was interested to know our thoughts on how spokespeople who are asked to do interviews one after another can avoid sounding like they have slipped into autopilot.
He was particularly interested in how spokespeople can avoid this during crisis media management incidents, where they may be limited on what they can say, and the messaging can be restrictive.
What was behind the question?
Well, he had been watching the news on TV and saw an interview that stood out for the wrong reasons.
Veteran broadcaster Trevor Phillips was interviewing Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis about the Matt Hancock scandal when he brought in a personal question packed with emotion.
He said: “Over the past two days, every Cabinet minister, including you, has come out to essentially defend the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock
“The pictures that we saw were of an encounter on May 6.
“On May 11, my family buried my daughter, who had died not of Covid but during the lockdown.
“Three hundred of our family and friends turned up online, but most of them were not allowed to be at the graveside, even though it is in the open air, because of the rule of 30.
“Because of the instruction by Mr Hancock. Now the next time one of you tells me what to do in my private life, explain to me why I shouldn’t just tell you where to get off?”
If ever there was a question that needed a human response, it was this one. But Mr Lewis, who had been doing the media rounds that day and had spoken to several broadcasters, did not spot it.
Instead, he responded robotically, sticking rigidly to the government’s messages. He did not even acknowledge Mr Phillip’s loss.
He said: “Look, I absolutely accept the frustration, even the anger, from people and the situations they’ve been through.
“I’ve lost friends whose funerals I’ve not been able to go to, that is such a tragic situation for any of us to be in, which is why it’s so important for all of us to do what we can to keep ourselves and family members safe.”
“Explain to me why I shouldn’t tell you where to get off?”@TrevorPTweets speaks out about losing his daughter during lockdown, at the same time Matt Hancock broke COVID rules.— Trevor Phillips on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) June 27, 2021
Brandon Lewis accepts “the frustration and anger".#Phillips: https://t.co/IWqi5Um7f0 pic.twitter.com/pXEe5jvCDL
I hope @BrandonLewis has reflected on his pre packaged lines and realised the answer here, the human answer might have first been something about being sorry for your dreadful loss.— Steven Battelle (@StevenJBattelle) June 27, 2021
Another politician who just cannot speak human.— Dr Mike Galsworthy (@mikegalsworthy) June 27, 2021
So very sorry for your loss. The Secretary of State’s response was devoid of all understanding or compassion.— Liz Jarvis (@LizJarvisUK) June 27, 2021
So, how can other spokespeople avoid a similar situation and ensure all the interviews they give during a day of media appearances hit the right mark?
This may sound odd when we often talk about the importance of preparation in these media training blogs.
Good preparation is vital, but you can have too much of a good thing. Trying to revise extensive briefing documents, and brushing up on those notes during gaps between interviews, can lead to information overload.
There is also a risk that if spokespeople do manage to retain some of these responses to specific questions, they will be more like a talking robot, unable to create a natural-sounding conversation, than an authentic media spokesperson.
Over briefed spokespeople also sometimes become fixated on a question being asked a specific way, and struggle to adapt when it is asked differently to how they had expected.
How can you fix this?
Ideally, spokespeople should spend around 20 minutes talking through the objective of the interviews. This should include considering how they want the audience to feel when they see and hear the interview; what action you would like them to take; what you would want them to remember; what case studies and examples should be used to support the message; and, what negative questions are likely to come up.
As I’ve just said, it is crucial to spend some time thinking about the difficult questions that could be asked and how they should be answered.
But don’t script those answers and try to memorise what to say.
One of the aims of an interview should be to create a natural sounding conversation. And that involves listening carefully to the question and being confident enough to adapt and edit what you plan to say in response.
That personal, human angle will often be more subtle than it was in the question asked by Mr Phillips.
But it still needs acknowledging and answering before you use the bridging technique to steer the conversation to what you want to discuss.
The human angle shouldn’t just come in the questions.
All media spokespeople should be encouraged to express feelings, show emotions and share personal stories and anecdotes, no matter how many journalists they need to speak to.
Audiences want to hear from people to who they can relate – it is crucial for building trust.
And by being more human, spokespeople create those natural conversations, rather than a robotic question and answer session.
Ok, you would expect us to bring this in.
But media training is not just about providing spokespeople with the skills and techniques needed for talking to journalists.
It is also a great way of building resilience so spokespeople can deliver good interviews no matter how many they carry out during a day.
Delegates I speak to during our training often talk about the number of interviews they have faced on the course. Each training session is bespoke, but it is not unusual for delegates to tackle different types of print, radio and TV interviews during their time with us – a combination you could easily experience during a day of interviews.
Media days and interview rounds are gruelling. But there is no place for tiredness or complacency.
Each interview must be treated as a unique opportunity to get your message across.
The people who see or hear your early interviews are unlikely to be the same audience as those you will speak to in the next one.
So, bring the energy, enthusiasm and passion, no matter how drained you feel.
If you have several interviews booked, consider how you can factor in time between each one for a quick review.
It only needs to take a few minutes and should focus on what went well and what could have gone better.
It is an approach that could prevent them from making the same mistake all the way through. Or it could help them find a way of adding real emphasis to the message.
And a break will enable them to get energy levels back up ahead of the next interview.
The final thing to consider is whether it needs to be just one spokesperson carrying out the interviews.
Just because a politician does the media rounds each morning doesn’t mean it is the right approach – some might argue there are few lessons we should be taking from our politicians.
Anyway, there are, of course, some situations where it may be beneficial to have one person speaking to journalists – perhaps your CEO during a crisis.
But in other situations – if you have several experienced spokespeople who have had recent media training – why not put different interviewees forward and spread the load?
The other benefit of this approach is that it can enable you to play to the strengths of your spokespeople. For example, if you have someone who prefers being on radio to TV, you could let them do those interviews, and ask someone else to appear on camera.
Need a little more help? Have a chat with one of our account managers about our range of training options, including bespoke and ready-to-go online courses.
You could also download our FREE media interview preparation guide.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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