Tips for Media Interviews
When a reporter calls
If you need assistance with a media interview — because you’re nervous, because it deals with a sensitive issue or for any other reason — reach out to University Relations as soon as possible.
When you find out about the interview request
If an interview request comes in via email, a voicemail or a message from someone else, you should immediately seek to determine:
– The reporter’s identity (including phone number, email address and media outlet)
– The reporter’s deadline
– The subject of the story
If you’re the appropriate one to respond, reach out to the reporter to schedule the interview. If you believe scheduling is going to be a problem (ex. The reporter has a deadline in 4 hours and you’re teaching for the next 4 hours), let the reporter know up front.
If you are caught by surprise – a reporter approaches you on campus or you answer the phone and the reporter’s on the other end — politely tell them you’d be happy to help, but you are in the middle of something and would like to schedule a time later in the day/week.
If a reporter says “This will only take a minute.” Say “I want to make sure I have time to help you as much as possible, so let’s do it later today.”
Bottom line: Give yourself time to prepare.
Reporters, first and foremost, seek the truth. Never lie to a reporter; it is far more damaging to you and the university than virtually anything else you can say or not say.
Reporters seek as much information as possible. They want to communicate as many facts and details as they can within their deadline and story formats. Also remember that although you may have limitations on what you can say due to privacy laws and the like, journalists are not bound by the same requirements and may ask you for information you can’t provide. You should tell the reporter forthrightly you can’t provide that information and why (ex. academic privacy, personnel privacy, don’t know those details, etc.).
Reporters are most concerned with quality, safety, value and whether rules or laws were broken. Be prepared to focus on these issues if the story subject is related to them in some way.
Reporters have an angle. They often come to a story with a certain belief about what the story is, and will ask questions to support that angle. This usually is NOT because they’re advancing an agenda, but because they either believe their angle reflects the “true story” or because they believe their angle will be the most interesting to their audience. Sometimes the angle is assigned to the reporter by an editor or producer.
Reporters have audiences. We speak with journalists in order to reach their audiences. Remember that your goal is to communicate with readers, watchers and listeners. Don’t take anything personally. Be as friendly, polite and helpful as you can.
Appearance, body language and tone of voice are as important as the words that you say. How you come across — on television, over the phone or in a meeting — is primarily influenced by nonverbal factors. However, what you say and how you say it is also important.
In most media interviews that most of you are likely to have, you probably won’t encounter hostile, especially aggressive or negative questions. Your biggest issue will likely be explaining some technical concept from your field to a reporter with no background in the subject. However, if you find yourself in a situation where the questions are tougher or the subject is more sensitive, here are some tips to ensure that you get your messages across clearly.
1. Be honest and accurate. Though it should go without saying, always tell the truth. If you can’t, don’t say anything.
2. Go short and sweet. Don’t be abrupt or insensitive, but keep you answers short and straightforward. Answer the question and stop talking – don’t let silence lure you into rambling. If a pause becomes uncomfortable, ask the reporter “Does that make sense?” or “Do you need more details?”
3. Use facts, figures and anecdotes. Using specific facts, numbers and short anecdotes helps you be more persuasive. Prepare these with your key messages. If the story is particularly abstract or technical, consider using metaphors to illustrate important ideas.
4. Correct negative sentiments, exaggerations and misstatements. If a reporter exaggerates or says something negative or incorrect, politely say something positive or correct the statement. Do not repeat the original negative from the reporter.
Reporter: “So you’re saying the professors in your field at the other universities competing for this grant aren’t as smart as you?”
You: “I’m saying the NSF told us they found our application particularly compelling because of the experience of our faculty.”
5. Answer even when you can’t answer. Avoid using the phrase “no comment,” which makes it sound as though you’re hiding something. If you can’t answer, say why and move on to a key message. (See block and bridge below.)
6. Handle rude, aggressive, unpleasant journalists. Remember your role is not to debate the journalist and your true audience is the journalist’s readers/viewers. Remain polite and professional at all times.
7. Hook the reporter. Hooking is a technique used to get a journalist interested in some point or message (s)he hasn’t asked about. Example:
“You may be surprised to know that UNCG …”
8. Block and bridge. Blocking and bridging is a technique to deal with unproductive questions and comments from reporters. Example:
Question: “This is a really big grant you’ve won. Do you think it will help your reputation and maybe get a higher-paying job at a bigger or better university?”
Answer: “This is a major grant and we’re very excited about it. I’m focused on getting started with the research. Our students and my colleagues in the department are are looking forward to answering some very important questions through this research.”
9. Flag key points. Flagging is a way to draw attention and emphasize key messages.
“The most important thing to remember is that our undergraduates will have an opportunity, thanks to this grant, to get invaluable research experience. That’s something undergraduates at most universities never get.”
10. You’re always on the record. Anything you say or do within sight or hearing of a reporter is on the record – even when the camera’s off and the notebooks are put away. Telling a reporter “that was off the record” or “this is off the record” does not make it off the record. Don’t do it.