How to prepare spokespeople for interviews

December 2, 2009

Has one of your spokespeople ever aced media training and then given a less than stellar performance during an interview? 

While media training is a great way to prepare spokespeople for the spotlight, you know that the pressure of being interviewed on camera in front of your peers can be overwhelming — so overwhelming that you may forget some of the key learnings or messages. No matter how well someone performs in media training, comprehensive preparation before an interview is necessary for success.  Additionally, proper follow-up and follow-through with your spokespeople will help prepare them for next time.

Taking the time to provide that extra bit of preparation will make a difference in interview performance. Here are some guidelines:

Prepare spokespeople before interview requests
Before interviews are an option, your spokespeople should understand the key messages that they plan to convey.  At Toshiba, we work with our business units to develop message maps that not only are used for media material development, but also serve as a guide for points to deliver in an interview.  We tailor the messages to a variety of media audiences — trade, consumer and business — so whether we get a call from an imaging trade or a national newspaper, we can deliver key differentiators for the specific audience.

Gather all of the facts
Before you can properly prepare anyone for an interview, you must fully understand the scope of the reporter’s article. Don’t be afraid to ask reporters questions about the topic and find out exactly what they are looking for from your company. Sometimes you can ask reporters to give you a few sample questions so that you can discern the direction of the piece.

Beyond obtaining facts about the interview at hand, you can learn a lot about a publication and reporter by reading his or her recent articles. This will help you understand the tone that the reporter has taken on a particular topic so that you can advise your spokesperson of any contentious questions or issues that may arise. Understanding a reporter’s background is important.  At Toshiba, we once received an interview request about the results of a controversial imaging study.  When we looked into the reporter’s background, we learned that he typically covered education. This helped us because we knew that we would have to explain our position using different language than we usually would with a reporter who covered imaging regularly.

Develop a Q-and-A
Use the questions that you receive from the reporter to develop a tough practice Q-and-A. I suggest that you also add questions and answers that you think could be addressed. This will help your spokesperson remember key messages.

Depending on the experience level of your spokesperson, you should schedule a time to go over potential questions either the day before or on the day of the scheduled interview.  Those who are being interviewed for the first time will especially appreciate the practice.  Also, you might discover that seasoned spokespeople don’t fully read briefing materials until just before an interview. Scheduling this time to brief them in person is invaluable to making sure that your company’s messages are delivered.

Make spokespeople feel comfortable
New spokespeople — whether they are new to doing interviews or new to being a spokesperson for your company — will naturally feel nervous. Reassure them that you are there to staff the interview in order to protect them, not to monitor them.  Also, give them permission to admit that they don’t know the answer to a question — you can always follow up later with an answer. Explaining that it’s OK not to know everything will give them a sense of relief and it will preempt any tendency to make up an answer on the spot.  

Provide feedback
Every interview is an opportunity to learn something. If you noticed that your spokesperson struggled with a particular question, offer tips on how they might handle that question next time.

Spokespeople tend to remember what went wrong and they typically don’t make the same mistakes twice, so this extra advice is worth your time. If your spokesperson gave a flawless performance, then be sure to acknowledge that as well.

Follow up
There is no better way to reinforce positive behavior — or suggest techniques for improvement — than to make sure that your spokespeople see the coverage of their interview.  This is helpful because it reinforces media training messages. If they did not deliver their answer clearly and were misquoted, then you can help them understand why that happened. If they interviewed well, then they will feel proud and want to put in the extra preparation time again to ensure that every interview is just as successful.

It’s easy to assume that people who have been trained in media or participated in a number of interviews in the past don’t need or want extra preparation.

Remember that each interview opportunity is unique and deserves your full attention.  Taking this extra time will serve you — and your company — well.

Charlene Jacobs
Charlene Jacobs is manager, public relations and communications at Toshiba America Medical Systems, Inc. in Tustin, Calif. Prior to joining Toshiba, she worked in public relations for The Home Depot’s Western Division in Orange, Calif.


Janet Blair says:

This is good, sound advice. I would also add that training spokespeople to speak in short "soundbites"---even for print media--- is also helpful. I aim at ten seconds, which is about 30 words.

Dec. 3, 2009

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