We recently had an opportunity to have a client on the news to comment about a breaking business story. With good reason she was nervous. It was an emerging issue and not all the facts had yet been revealed. Additionally, she had stakeholders on both sides of the argument and couldn't afford to alienate any of them.
What do you do in this case? If you decline the interview media won’t come back to you when they need an expert. If you do the interview, you could get caught in a tough discussion.
There is no right answer but, if you are media-aware (if you understand the news process, what media are looking for, and why journalists ask certain questions) you are likely to come out looking like the expert you are.
Here are some ways to help navigate through such situations:
1) Remember, you are the expert: The reason media are asking you for an interview is because you are the expert. They aren’t looking to trick you. They are looking for insight to forward the story they are covering. Think about what you can tell them that they don’t already know.
2) Talking Points: Be prepared! You can be prepared even if you don’t know the questions ahead of time (and usually you won’t). Develop three to four one-sentence summaries of the most important points you want to make. Then, answer the questions you are asked connecting their question to your prepared answers.
3) Never Bluff! If you do not know the answer to a question -- say so. Equally, if you
can’t answer say so. Media resent a run-a-round. They almost always respect a clear answer as to why you can’t comment. Remember, all they are looking for is new information. So if you can’t tell them what they want, tell them something else that would be helpful. Try one of these: “This is not my area of expertise but from my vantage point the issue is……..”; “I don’t know anything about that so I couldn’t say but something I think is very interesting is …….”; “Due to regulatory restrictions I am not able to provide any information at this point but I can tell you……”; “This matter is currently in front of the courts and while I am not at liberty to speak about it now, feel free to come back to me in a few weeks and I’d be happy to discuss with you what I can.”
4) Don’t get quoted out of context: Being taken out of context can in large part be avoided by the interviewee. There are always journalists that look for the sensational version of a story but the vast majority aim to get it right (and fast). Help them by talking clearly, eliminate industry jargon (people tend to use even more industry-speak when they are nervous). Chances are if they got it wrong they didn’t understand what you said. Keeping responses short will also help. If you give them something too long they will have to use part of your answer to fit the space/time they have and it will be up to them which part to use. Because they are not experts in your area, they can select a portion that on its own is inaccurate or doesn’t make sense. Get in the habit of speaking with quick short sentences that don’t rely on a follow-up comment to make sense. This sounds difficult but with practice can indeed be mastered.