5 Media Interviewing Tips for Leaders

It's your big moment - a reporter calls and wants to interview you about your company. That could mean exposure to new clients, third-party validation (you can cite a positive news story for a long time), and the opportunity to raise your profile. But interviews are also fraught with risks, from going off-message to facing hostile queries to totally blanking out (as film director Michael Bay did at the recent CES conference). So what interviewing tips can middle market leaders follow?

Alexandra Levit, author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World, is an expert on how professionals can succeed in the workplace, and has faced her own share of media interviews. Here are the interviewing tips she recommends you follow when you're preparing for the klieg lights.

Understand the angle It's imperative to know what the reporter's focus is so that you can adequately prepare, says Levit. "What do they want to talk about and why would they like to interview you?" If you make assumptions - of course, they're calling about your new product launch! - you may find yourself dumbfounded when they start peppering you with questions about areas you haven't researched, such as globalization trends in your industry. Be sure to ask specifically about their topic, angle, and the format of the interview. Will you be on a panel with others? Is it live or recorded? Television, radio, or print? How long will it be?

Hone your message Once you understand where the reporter is coming from, create several short sound bites (30 seconds or less) that address their general theme but also emphasize the points you want to get across. For instance, if the reporter wants to talk about how companies in your field are addressing Internet security and your core PR message is about quality, you can answer their question and bring it back to that point: "Our company's most important value is quality, and that's why we've invested heavily in Internet security. A quality experience means a safe online experience."

Know your data. "If there is data supporting your message, memorize it," advises Levit. It's always good to throw in a few choice statistics to give substance to your remarks. How many millions does your company add to the local economy? How many countries do you operate in? But don't go overboard. One to three interesting stats can enliven an interview, but with more than that you risk overwhelming your audience. "You want to sound natural, like you know your area of expertise well - not like an automaton," she says.

Look the part If you're doing a radio or print interview, your regular work attire should be just fine. But you need to take special care if you've been invited on television. Leave the bold patterns at home and go with solid colors. (There's a reason politicians always seem to wear blue shirts and red ties.) Avoid black, which doesn't show up well on television. Wear a blazer or jacket, so there's a discreet place for the camera crew to attach your microphone. And another of Levit's interviewing tips is that "women should ask the producer if they should arrive made up and with their hair done." Sometimes a station will provide that service, but other times you're on your own, and it's better to know in advance.

Don't be led astray. It's easy to feel intimidated if a reporter asks you a question you don't know. But don't guess or speculate; that's what often gets you into trouble, says Levit. "You are a human being and you don't have to appear omnipotent," she says. "I've learned to say, 'I don't know the answer, but I'm happy to connect you with someone who does.'" Instead, relax and concentrate on getting your key messages out, preferably within the first three minutes of an interview, "because you don't know how long it's going to last and if you wait until the end, you risk getting cut off abruptly." If the reporter keeps asking questions you don't know the answers to (or aren't authorized to discuss), just "stay calm and bridge back to your key messages," says Levit.

Winning positive press coverage is a major opportunity for middle market leaders to propel their companies forward. If you want to compete globally, the media can be a powerful lever to get you there. With these strategies, you'll be able to maximize your chances of a successful encounter.

Dorie Clark is an NCMM contributor and marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press), and follow her on Twitter. Circle her on Google+.


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