Crisis Management: Preparing For a Critical Press Interview: Crisis Communications
Now that you have a media interview impending, how do you prepare for it? The best way is to use the same approach you would for a crisis interview. Why a crisis? Simple. If you can talk to a reporter under the worst conditions, you can do it under the best.
First, a lesson from a poor interview
The value of good preparation is best appreciated by first examining a typically counterproductive response to a fictional crisis:
A vandal breaks through the fence around your plant and opens a valve to a chemical tank. Hazardous liquid oozes down a hill and into a tributary leading to a lake. Fish are dying, a foul odor hangs in air, and neighbors call police and ask if they are in danger. A reporter comes to you for a comment.
Nervously and defensively you begin talking and talking. The journalist asks questions from all angles. How did this happen? How could you allow this to happen? Is your company derelict? What will you do about the dying fish? How will you protect your neighbors? Should they evacuate? Whose fault is this? What other chemicals on your property might threaten your neighbors? Has this happened before? Is it likely to occur again?
You answer question after question with the best information or opinion that comes to mind. The reporter scribbles quote after quote, fact after fact, thought after thought. You eagerly provide the best detail you can.
The reporter leaves to write the story. Meantime you say to a colleague, “Whew, I think I did well in that interview. I answered every question he asked.”
What’s wrong with this picture?
Why misquotes are usually your fault.
Well, you just gave the reporter a range of data, comment, and opinion sufficient for an infinite variety of stories. Now put yourself in the reporter’s place. Which quote would you use? Which information is most important? Which comment captures the essence of the story? Which quote best reflects your (the reporter’s) belief of what the story should be? So many remarks – so little space.
The Chinese menu syndrome
In such a situation, you the interviewee have made yourself the victim of what I call the “Chinese menu syndrome.” Like a waiter offering a diner an enticing array of dishes, you have just presented the reporter an extensive list of comments for a story. Now think about it. If you have given 30 options to the reporter, what are the odds that the journalist will pick the option that best reflects your point of view? Long odds, to say the least. It is logical that a reporter with so many choices would select a quote other than the one you preferred. This is why the frequent complaint that reporters misquote a source is usually not valid. The problem is that the source has provided an unfocused array of information rather than the reporter has taken a comment out of context. It is your responsibility to have a focused message.
This is why it is important for you to focus your interviews. When you do so, you can not only clarify a crisis, but, in positive situations, zero in on comments that would provide the maximum benefit to potential customers reading about your business.
Your mission is to use a media interview as an opportunity to send a message, not to answer questions. Here is a model for how to draft a powerful message:
I. Prepare three messages that benefit both the company and your audience
Let’s look at how a client of mine actually prepared for a business feature story interview. The company president’s first inclination was to talk about technological and financial growth. However, we realized that while that was useful to the company, it was no real help to readers – his potential customers. Therefore, we reformulated his primary message to explain how his expertise could directly benefit other businesses. The reader and the company would therefore benefit from the primary message of the article.
From that point on, during the conversation with the reporter, the president’s goal was to look for every opportunity to drive home his main message – his company’s knowledge could mean growth for other businesses.
In all, you should list three messages. For example, the president had one message that pointed out how CD-ROM’s and websites together reinforce each other to generate business. Another message was how a website alone should be designed to create business. A fourth message was how a CD-ROM alone could improve business.
II. Prepare for the questions
Brainstorm potential reporter questions. List and answer at least the top five most likely questions you expect to be asked. Also list and answer at least the five worst possible questions you could face. (This is truly valuable in crisis communications). Not only will this step keep you from being blindsided, it will reveal whether your primary and supporting messages are addressing the issues truly on the mind of the news consumer. Look at question preparation as a crosscheck for your messages. The primary theme and the supporting messages should address the most likely questions the audience would have about your subject.
III. Satisfy & Steer the interview
Your mission now is to gently guide the interview back toward your messages. Satisfy the reporter’s questions, but bridge your comments back to your messages as often as possible. There is skill in this that you can learn through media coaching and through practice.
These steps should help you increase the persuasive power of stories about your business, benefit those who read about you, and, hopefully, attract more clients or customers.