Talking with the Media Without Panicking -- It’s All About Preparation

By Eileen Tanner

As public relations people we are known as storytellers. It sounds simple enough but it’s oftentimes not. We regularly work with clients to help them frame their stories to be more compelling. It often involves putting clients in front of media which means one thing to them…PANIC!

We help by providing tips, tricks, techniques and training so our clients feel more comfortable putting their stories out there wherever they are. And, we understand the changing media landscape too so can make clients feel comfortable wherever they are working with media or the general public.

Today there are thousands of news organization and, with the popularity of social media, the news cycle went from 24 hours to 24 seconds. Plus, anyone can be a reporter. This makes the job of spokespeople much more difficult but yet still very important.

What You Want To Say

First, it’s important to remember that in any interview, you have control of the conversation. Rather than give that control to the interviewer, guide the interview to deliver your key messages. To do this you need:

  • Clear objectives

  • 3-5 key messages you want to convey

Clear objectives are important to anything you do, especially with media.

  • What are you trying to accomplish by being interviewed?

  • What are you trying to convey through the story?

  • What do you want your audience to walk away knowing?

Before you can create your messages, you need to understand the audience.

  • What do they already know and believe?

That’s where the regular work of a public relations person comes into play as we likely work with these folks on a regular basis.

Remember, too, that the reporter isn’t your audience but can drive the story if you let them. So, know what’s of interest to him and the audience. Understand the facts they already know and opinions they might have.

Once you know your audience and understand your objective you can develop your key messages. Use 3-5 key messages that are clear, concise and compelling:

  • Use words that ensure clarity – in most cases, avoid industry jargon

  • Make them concise – simple, brief and to the point

  • Make them compelling by using color, relevancy or storytelling techniques

Now that you have key messages, back them up with proof points. These are the evidence that support your message and color is the anecdote or sound bite that brings your message to life. Here’s an example:

Key message: Congregation Coffee has the best coffee in town.

Proof points: Congregation Coffee is a top choice on Yelp with 4.5 stars out of 36


Congregation Coffee offers great coffee and pastries in a cozy and

functional space run by great people.

Preparing for the interview

Now that you have key messages, it’s time to prepare for the actual interview. Working closely with your PR team will help you with the following:

  • Understanding your audience – who are you trying to reach?

  • Getting to know the reporter – what do they write about, what topics are they most interested in (check their twitter), what is their writing style? (In most cases, your PR team will do this homework for you.)

  • Help with homework and gathering internal information to ensure you have all you need on the topic.

  • Preparing tough questions you might be asked, and drafting answers to them.

  • Then it’s up to you to practice, practice, practice.

The first question we often receive from spokespeople when we’re setting up an interview is, “What will the reporter ask me?” What you should be asking is “what do I want his audience to know?”

When we share stories with friends, we generally start by explaining the background and the people involved before getting to the meat of the story. However, the news works in reverse. The story you tell starts with the headline and works back to explain the characters and setting. So, delivering your message should begin with the message (headline) followed by proof and support with an anecdote or personal experience.

Interview Techniques

There are three important techniques that will help you during an interview:

  • Setting the Hook

  • Flagging

  • Bridging

Setting the Hook uses a brief statement to guide the reporter to ask a question geared toward your key message. The hook gives enough information to entice the reporter to ask for more information.

Example: Congregation Coffee has several unique products in the pipeline.

Next question: "What are these unique products?”

Flagging uses a statement to emphasize the key message you’re about to deliver. These can be powerful statements that make people notice.

Example: “The most important thing to remember is….”

“Let me be very clear….”

“The bottom line is….”

Flags are a great way to introduce your key message or emphasize a key message you’ve already delivered. In addition, TV, radio and podcast reporters generally use flagged comments in their soundbites.

Bridging is the third and probably the most powerful technique. It turns an unwelcomed question into an opportunity and deflect questions that aren’t relevant to the story. Your public relations person can help you learn how to effectively bridge.

Examples: “Correct, but what it’s important today is…”

“Let me answer by telling you….”

“While ____ is important, you should also remember….”

Dos and Don'ts During an Interview

Things to do in every interview:

  • Set the appropriate tone

  • Deliver key messages

  • Be quotable

  • Deliver shorter, conversational answers

  • Correct misstatements

  • Admit if you don’t know

Things not to do in an interview:

  • Repeat negative comments

  • Inappropriate humor

  • Focus on the competition

  • Misleading comments or “guessing”

  • Say something “off the record”

Handling tough questions

In nearly every interview it’s likely you’ll be asked difficult questions. After all, that’s the reporter’s job. Some you may not be able to answer for legal reasons, or they may be are controversial. It’s important to keep to your messages without getting side tracked or emotional. Practice and preparation are your friends here. The more you practice the better you’ll be able to control your emotions and stay on message.

Remember, it’s important to consider prior to the interview what tough questions you could be asked so you can prepare a well-thought-out response. And…you don’t have to answer every question.

The bridging technique is very helpful in dealing with tough questions as it helps deflect and return to your key message.

If you don’t know an answer, say so and give a date when you’ll get back to the reporter with an answer.

We know this is a lot of information but with a preparation and practice, and a good PR team to help you, you’ll find interviews much easier. August 20 we’ll have another post discussing the role of tone and body language in interviews, and tips based on the type of media.

Finally, should you need help talking with the media, get in touch. We've been doing this for years and are happy to share our expertise.

The Barber Group

Gig Harbor, Washington


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