Many female experts routinely decline to give media interviews for a variety of reasons: they may already feel over-committed and believe the time invested won’t benefit them in any way. They may know others with more knowledge in a particular area. Or they may be wary of being misquoted. But women who do regularly share their expertise with journalists often have very positive experiences and appreciate the opportunity to give important context to news stories, counter common misconceptions, and share useful information. Here are some tried and true strategies for turning media requests into opportunities:
When A Reporter Contacts You Directly
1.If it’s by phone, start with: “I’m just in the middle of something, but if you tell me what you’re looking for, I’m happy to call you back shortly.”
- Under no circumstances should you say, “I’m not the best person.” (It’s very rare that such a person exists, and the journalist has identified you as having some relevant expertise. If you turn her down, she’s not going to end up talking to your mythical ‘best person’; she’s going to interview the guy in the next office, or across town. He may be competent, but likely no more than you.
- Once you’ve bought yourself a few minutes to reflect on the issue or story, and consider what you know that will add context and enhance public understanding, then you call the reporter back to say, “Here’s what I could talk about…” You’re not declaring that you’re the best person, but you are opening the door to a conversation. And in the process you’re providing women and girls everywhere with a fully-clothed female role model who offers tangible evidence of women’s insight and leadership capacity.
2. It’s by email, for a print story, you may be able to respond in kind
- Sometimes an online or newspaper reporter will email you about a story, provide a link to some new research or other context, and request an interview. Under these circumstances, you can usually spend 20 minutes reviewing the research, and crafting two or three quotable points in response, which you then email back. In many cases, this allows you maximum control and minimum inconvenience.
2. Find out what the story is about and what the interview entails.
- Listen carefully to the reporter’s description of the issue and what she thinks she needs.
- Find out if she’s looking for 10 minutes on the phone, 5 minutes on TV (entailing at least 30 minutes of time, setting up lights in your office or lounge etc.), or 30 minutes on an open-line show at the station’s studio, requiring you to add in travel time.
3. Ask for what you need in order to be able to respond effectively.
- Don’t ever hesitate to say you’re in the middle of a meeting and/or need time to gather relevant data. Determine the reporter’s deadline and get back to her by that time.
- Ask to be able to do a print or radio interview over the phone, if that’s easiest for you. Ask if it’s possible for a TV interview to be done on campus if you’re short of time, or for the station to send a taxi to collect you, if transportation or parking is an issue.
- Even if you decide not to do an interview, courteously letting the reporter know allows her time to find an alternative.
4. Prepare your response.
- Consider what you want to get out of the coverage.
- Practice delivering your key messages in 10-second sound-bites, supported by vivid examples or analogies, to make it less likely that your remarks will be inaccurately paraphrased.
- If you’re doing the interview over the phone, you can have the points you want to make, or the data you want to cite, in front of you on your computer screen or a notepad as a reminder.
5. Use the opportunity to build a relationship.
- Even if you think you’re not the right person, can you comment on one aspect of the story?
- If you really can’t do the interview can you refer the reporter or producer to someone else who’s equally or more qualified to comment?
- After the story airs or is published, find a reason to follow-up with a positive comment (e.g. “Thank you for bringing attention to this issue.”) Journalists appreciate feedback just like everyone.
- If you access an email or voicemail after the reporter’s deadline, still take the time to respond indicating that you received the request too late, expressing hope that she got what she needed elsewhere, and encouraging her to contact you in the future.
6. If you’re anxious about the interview outcome or have been “burned” in the past:
- Use your smart phone to record the interview, letting the reporter know that you’re working on honing your responses into more media-friendly sound bites. This will subtly reinforce the importance of her quoting you accurately, AND give you an opportunity to listen to the conversation afterwards and make note of where your answers could be crisper.
- Pay attention to how the interviewer paraphrases you. Correct her if necessary.
- Take time to clarify or elaborate on points that are complex or that you think you may not have been clear about.
- Offer to follow-up with additional information. (And then be sure you do.)
- Supply photos if possible and relevant, or suggest sidebars, graphs or charts that will help to illustrate or better explain the issues.
- Be a human being, smile at the interviewer when she introduces you. Warmth and personality translate through your voice.
- Notes are an option when you’re on the radio, but confine them to key statistics, or concise phrases on one page, so you’re not hunting for details, rustling paper, or reading from the page.
TV gives you three means of communicating your message: verbally, through words; vocally, through tone; and physically, through body language. Although the content of your message is very important, your physical presence – tone of voice, distracting clothing or body language can easily upstage your message. SO:
- Sit erect, project energy and maintain open body language.
- Use simple hand gestures if they come naturally to you.
- Maintain eye contact with the interviewer, if there is one on set with you.
- If you’re in a ‘double-ender’ studio, staring into a camera with the interviewer asking you questions through an ear piece from another location, gaze directly into the camera in front of you.
- If other people are being interviewed along with you, either in studio or from other locations, maintain your attentive listening demeanour throughout. Even when others are speaking, you may be on screen.
- Dress in a way that enhances your authority without making you uncomfortable. Wear pants so it won’t matter what kind of chair or couch you’re sitting on. Avoid stripes or herringbone patterns that can create a moray pattern on screen. Avoid lots of jewellery that’s likely to distract, including dangly earrings that move when you talk.
- If it’s a studio interview, arrive early so you can get make-up – even if it’s just base make-up (like they apply to men) to compensate for the brightness of the lights;
- However, don’t allow them to apply eye and lip make-up if you don’t ordinarily wear them; you don’t want to end up looking uncomfortable and unnatural.
PREPARING FOR INTERVIEWS
Identify Three Key Messages
- What’s the issue in a nutshell (clearly and concisely)
- Why should people care, who’s affected and how
- What do you most want people to know or do
- How can you describe the issue in concrete, visually evocative terms
- Be ready to cite evidence to support your claims
Use Accessible Language
- Target grade 9 comprehension
- Keep it jargon- and acronym-free
- Make it conversational
- Use examples, stories, analogies
- Think “win friends and influence people” (hostility and blaming are not persuasive)
- Passion and excitement help to engage audiences
- Relaxed and objective beat tightly-wound and partisan
- …the worst questions you could possibly be asked, and
- Develop concise responses that bridge to key messages
Learn to Bridge …away from questions that aren’t relevant, or statements you don’t support
- e.g. “My research explores a different challenge…” or
- “What’s important for people to understand is…” or
- “The question I hear more often focuses on…” or
- “What we do know is…”
- We don’t know the answer to that yet …
- My research addresses X, not Y…
- I’m not familiar with that research …