Media training: Six mistakes spokespeople make during press telephone interviews

Journalists spend the majority of their time these days interviewing people on the phone.

Financial cuts throughout the newspaper industry mean reporters are under more time pressure than ever before.

There are also fewer of them and they are working on several stories at any one time for different formats with deadlines not only for the print publications but also websites.

So the days of journalists spending their working lives out and about, notebook in hand, and interviewing people face-to-face are largely over.

Instead the telephone, or even Skype, has become their main method of interviewing people. Even in a crisis media management situation the demand for telephone interviews will be high.

How to handle these telephone interviews is something we put considerable emphasis on during our media training courses, not just because the format is increasingly common but also because it involves particular risks and pitfalls.

Telephone interviews are increasingly common and include particular risks and pitfalls via @mediafirstltd

Avoiding the six often made mistakes we have outlined below will help ensure your spokesperson’s next telephone interview goes well and generates the coverage you are looking for.


1 Using a speakerphone

Spokespeople often like to be supported by a member of the comms team when they are interviewed and using a speakerphone makes that possible for telephone interviews. However, the problem with using speakerphones is they make it harder for the journalist to hear what you are saying clearly as the sound quality is much poorer. This can stifle the conversation, and even bring it to a premature end, but more importantly it increases your chances of being misquoted. Someone from the comms team can still be on hand to offer support and maybe take notes on what has been said, but the sound quality must come first. Most modern office and mobile phones allow for an observer to ‘barge’ into a call so that they can ear wig on the conversation while the spokesperson can use the hand held receiver. We’d recommend speaking to your IT or telecoms provider to ensure that you are able to do this. It really should be very easy once you know how.


2 Underestimating the difficulty level

Many spokespeople fall into the trap of believing telephone interviews to be the easiest interview format. After all, you can’t see the reporter, you are not in front of a television camera and you are not about to go live on the radio airwaves. This casual approach can lead them to treat it as just another phone call in their busy day and not prepare thoroughly. But that is a dangerous approach. Newspapers and magazines still have huge audiences, both in print and online, so you need to make the most of the opportunity to get your messages heard. Also, journalists often find it easier to be tougher and more aggressive with interviewees on the phone than they do face-to-face.


3 Sitting down

Sounds like an odd one, after all why wouldn’t you take a phone call sitting down? Well, delivery is crucial and the phone quite often deadens the voice slightly. Standing up during the interview will help add extra energy and enthusiasm to your voice. This is a tactic often used by salespeople and rings true for media spokespeople as well


4 Getting distracted

Many spokespeople automatically carry out telephone interviews from their desks. The danger here is distraction. Whether it is emails, colleagues or other phone calls flashing up on your phone, there are many factors which could cause you to momentarily lose concentration and focus. This increases the chances of you mishearing a question or stumbling through a key message. Always book a meeting room with no distractions for your media interviews.


5 Filling in the silence

Journalists know that a bit of silence during a phone interview can make spokespeople feel uncomfortable. They are taught to ‘embrace the silence’ because they know many interviewees feel compelled to end this awkwardness by talking. Often they end up moving away from their messages and saying something they did not intend to say. Don’t fall into this trap. Simply wait until the reporter asks the next question however awkward the silence feels.


6 Speaking too fast

The faster you speak the harder it is for a reporter to keep up with and accurately record what you are saying. This could mean your key message goes unreported, while your chances of being misquoted are also increased. So don’t rush through your responses. Slow it down, and pause for emphasis on key points. And don’t be afraid to reiterate and repeat important messages. One of our media trainers often says that if it feels like you’re speaking too slowly you’re probably speaking at the right pace.


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. 

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