Media training 101
Updated: Mar 20, 2021
You're in public relations and know what makes a good pitch. But how do you get your experts to give better interviews? Media training.
I don't know about you other public relations and communications people, but my undergraduate PR program never covered media training. We definitely talked about what's defined as newsworthy, how to write pitches and press releases and even how to present to clients. But the scent stops there. I've realized that I was left in the lurch when it comes to helping the experts I work with deliver the best sound bites for broadcast, print and radio interviews. It's one thing to just schedule an interview and something completely different to help them become the best spokesperson they can be.
As you can imagine, everyone has their own take on tips and tricks for media training, but there are a handful of cardinal do's and don't's that you must impart to your pupils.
1. DRESS WELL & GET YOUR ANGLES DOWN
Nothing ruins an on-camera interview like poor presentation. A good rule of thumb is no busy patterns, including pin stripes, logos unless it's the brand they're representing in the interview, t-shirts or hoodies. Subtle foundation and/or blotting to remove shininess from the face also helps. For virtual interviews, which are more common these days, a pleasant but uncluttered background is a must. Preferably, avoid an all-white wall as light will reflect and create a front shadow on their face. Things like an organized bookshelf, nicely decorated wall with picture frames and potted plants all make for good backgrounds. Whatever you do, make sure there are no virtual backgrounds! These seem like a good idea but result in a very obvious attempt to hide the real background when your spokesperson inevitably moves their body and reveals the awkward shadow-like space between the edges of their moving limb or head and the virtual background. A laptop or desktop camera should be used however, a phone with a good camera can be used if propped up on a stand and turned horizontally. Cameras should always be placed at eye level and looked at throughout the interview as opposed to the screen where the reporter's face will be. Lighting is another important component in virtual interviews. Normally, camera positioning, lighting and all of this is taken care of by a news crew but COVID-19 shut that down. Spokespeople need to know how to make themselves look great with no help. So, light should always shine into faces and not behind them. This can be done by turning up the brightness on the computer screen (it's usually not enough though), using a warm lamp or opening a window behind the camera. If your expert does interviews often, you might consider recommending a selfie ring light. It goes without saying, but it should also be quiet place with a door to reduce outside noise that'll interfere with the audio.
2. DON'T FEAR THE INTERVIEW
Stage fright is a thing but should certainly not be noticeable during an interview. This applies to easy interviews about positive or informative stories and the more difficult interviews about something controversial or especially touchy for your organization alike. Nervousness either comes across as awkwardness or guilt, neither of which are becoming looks or beneficial in selling a positive story. Emphasize that the reporter, as inquisitive and hard-hitting as they may seem, is also just a person with tact, professionalism and hopefully kindness. They know how to conduct an interview in such a way as to simulate a conversation so spokespeople should lean in to that natural cadence as much as possible without forgetting talking points.
3. BE PREPARED
Just like many things in life like presentations, having a child or throwing a party, preparation is key in conducting a good interview. Whether the topic is something your expert is familiar with or not, they should have thoughts and talking points drafted prior to the start of the interview. First, make sure the interview topic and angle of the story is well known to avoid surprises. If possible, interviewees also should practice speaking the talking points out loud to solidify key terms and phrases so they flow off the tongue more naturally and eventually, by default. This kind of preparation, albeit time consuming, helps in a number of ways. Here's how:
Good flow helps maintain clarity and brevity for better sound bites. Better sound bites means more air time or quote space.
Familiarity with the interview topic and talking points reduces the risk of getting off topic, particularly during crisis response and management interviews.
Focus on talking points helps control the narrative of the interview to highlight key points for the company or brand.
Great interview performance increases the likelihood of being asked back as a guest.
4. KEEP THE LEAD UP TOP & REPEAT THE QUESTION
Sentence structure during an interview should be different than normal everyday speech. The human brain naturally responds to questions by spelling out supporting details and then wrapping up with the punch line conclusion. In PR we call this the lead. However, this is the opposite of what's right. Interviewees should respond to questions by first, repeating the question in the answer, stating the most important information, and then briefly explaining. Here's an example: Q: Why is there COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among many Black American communities? A: COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans exists because many of these communities have had notably poor experiences with the American health care system. Some recall the Tuskegee trials. Others have experienced racism or bias from health care providers. Others are dubious of the efficacy of these vaccines because of their speedy development. These are only some of the reasons but it's important that public health officials continue to provide education and vaccine access opportunities for Black communities who we know are disproportionately affected by severe COVID-19. Q: Why did The Hershey Company come up with this campaign for International Women's Day? A: The Hershey Company developed this International Women's Day-inspired campaign to solidify our company's dedication to empowering women's contributions within our own organization and around the world. We also wanted to lift up and recognize the pivotal and inspirational role women play everywhere in everyday life.
5. SPEAK IN LAYPERSON'S TERMS
As regarded as outlets like the Associated Press, Reuters or The New York Times may seem, they're all consumer media and that means one thing: Everything interviewees say should be easily understandable. Obviously more "in the weeds" terminology can be used for specialized trade media interviews, but even then, simple but clear always gets the job done. Tell your expert that every answer should be clearly understood by a seventh grader or 75-year-old. This can be particularly challenging for experts in technology, finance, health care and science, but it can be problematic for anyone really. Boiling things down to their essence is challenging, particularly for complex topics and issues, which is why preparation is so important. For example, I work with an infectious disease specialist with Keck Medicine of USC and he conducts dozens of interviews on COVID-19 nowadays. However, there many technicalities and science-y details that we had to talk through to simplify before booking interviews with consumer media. Explaining how a coronavirus mutates from a virus only able to infect animals, to one that's highly infectious and deadly to humans doesn't come naturally to his highly trained scientific mind. In fact, he's spent the entirety of his career understanding the minute intricacies of how viruses develop, mutate and spread. Media training turned his thought processes upside down, but it also improved his relatability and understandability for consumer media interviews.
6. DON'T REPEAT THE NEGATIVE
Sometimes, reporters will ask a question with a negative slant. This is an exception to the repeat the question rule. If the question is posed with a negative clause, advise against repeating the negative because the reporter will quote your expert, not themselves. Here's an example: Q: Did the university hire a diversity and inclusion officer to quell Black students' cries for an end to inequity on camps? Wrong answer: No, the university did not hire a D&I officer to appease students... Correct answer: The university is dedicated to providing quality and accessible higher education opportunities to people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. The D&I officer will take over existing programs and will spearhead new initiatives to cultivate even better relationships local communities and will strategically allocate resources, students, faculty research and outreach to increase equity both on and off campus.