In my years as a TV news reporter and anchor, I saw this happen time and again. The spokesperson for a company or non-corporate organization — whether a CEO, another official or someone from the public relations department — goes on camera to make an important announcement and blows it.
Watching and listening to them, it was obvious that they were not trying to “wing it.” Many had obviously thought through their key messages and some even had created word pictures to help journalists “see” what the individual was saying. Yet the interview turned into a disaster, with the reporter — and their viewers or readers — wondering what the interview subject was talking about.
In looking back at my experience, first as a journalist and now as a media and communications training consultant, there appears to be a handful of reasons why an organization loses the opportunity to communicate effectively through a reporter. People working in highly specialized or technical fields seem to be most prone to making these mistakes, but they happen just as regularly with spokespeople from all sectors and walks of life.
Answering Too Much. This may be the most common error. People not familiar with the media answer with too much detail, and don’t know when to stop talking. An endless ramble inadvertently provides an endless opportunity to be misquoted, or quoted out of context. State your main point and then wait for the next question.
Telling ‘Em Everything. This relates to “answering too much.” Many spokespeople seem to have an overwhelming urge to educate the interviewer on all of the nuances and subtleties of the issue at hand. In the process, the interview itself loses focus. To be effective, you need to state your key message, illustrate the point with a word picture, and move on. As fascinating as you may feel the subject is, a reporter only has time to understand enough to write or produce an informative story. They are not there to learn in an hour or less what it has taken you a lifetime to learn.
Listening Too Little. Want to irritate a print or TV reporter? Interrupt them, either by finishing the question or providing an answer before they’re through asking it. You must use the same approach to polite communicating as you would in a meeting with your boss, or a good friend.
Misunderstanding Your Role. Journalists did not come to hear you tout your newest product or service. They came for information. An interview is not a sales call, yet too many spokespeople fill their statements and handout material with puffery. When that happens, they complain about poor coverage, not comprehending why media coverage is not “free advertising.”
Misunderstanding The Media. No self-respecting journalist wants to become your billboard. The job of the media is to provide interesting, useful information to the public. If you help them do their job more effectively, or easier, you are more likely to get good coverage of your message.
Jargon Jingles. People in high tech are most prone to this, but it is not their exclusive domain. Avoid industry jargon and adjust your comments to the technical level of the reporter. When you speak over their head, you lose the opportunity to be quoted fairly. At the same time, if you speak down to, say, a beat reporter who has a deeper understanding of the issue, you may also lose the chance for a fair article.
Picking Fights. Some reporters are antagonistic and it is hard not to get testy with them. But as someone once said, “Never pick a fight with anyone who buys newsprint by the ton.” It’s a fight that you won’t win. If you feel the final story or report is biased, contact the editor or news director to discuss why you believe you were treated unfairly. Believe it or not, most people in news management want to be fair to news sources.
Dump On Competitors. You lose credibility very quickly if you use an interview to trash the competition. Think through what you plan to say, and phrase your thoughts in a way that conveys the benefits of what you are doing or offering. The reader or viewer is savvy enough to understand what you are saying.
I have seen people make other mistakes, as well. But those who take the time to develop key messages, create word pictures and learn how to “answer the answer” are most likely to avoid these tank traps.