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Five Tactics to Create More Effective Interviews

(Hint: Controlling the media is not the answer)

Journalist Michael Lewis worked several months on the profile of Barack Obama that appeared in Vanity Fair’s October issue. The lengthy article titled “Obama’s Way” has more than 41,000 Facebook likes and more than 3,500 tweets.

And yet, the article’s veracity and long-term value to President Obama were reduced when it became known that Lewis, a well-respected writer, commentator and author of such books as The Blind Side and Moneyball, was required to get White House approval for each quote before publication.

The years-long practice of quote approval exploded on the media scene this fall when The New York Times reported on how prevalent the practice was during the presidential campaign. Quote approval is among the most smothering of tactics that politicians and business executives seek to invoke to sanitize information provided during an interview. Other tactics include requesting to approve a list of questions prior to an interview or to see an entire story before publication.

Far too much effort often is spent attempting to control the media rather than planning to provide a good interview. It’s an understandable imbalance.

Being interviewed is a more potentially powerful act than ever. One great quote, or misstatement for that matter, can be instantly tweeted, blogged and posted on a social media site such as YouTube or Facebook. If the quote is a real doozy, it can go viral. The message spread becomes virtually unstoppable, whether you like it or not. Do a Google search that includes BP CEO Tony Hayward and “I’d like my life back.”  You will get 125,000 results. And the drilling explosion in the Gulf of Mexico was more than two years ago!

Practicing effective media relations requires far more effort than striving to exert increasing amounts of control prior to an interview. Think how your perception of an article, blog post or video interview would change if you knew the coverage contained contrived or “managed” information. The impact of the journalism is lessened, as is its ability to change perceptions. The third-party credibility endemic to professional journalism is compromised.

Rather than pressing for control you can never really achieve, business executives – and politicians for that matter – who interact with the media would be wise to improve their interview skills. To achieve the maximum benefit from an interview, make sure you say something impactful! Approach media interactions as win-win propositions if at all possible, and aspire to the five following tactics:

  • Prepare for the interview. A good reporter backgrounds himself/herself on the topic to be discussed, and so should you.
  • Understand generally what the interviewer is going to cover. If you want to talk about earnings and the journalist asks about China, you may not be in the right interview! Establishing parameters for an interview often is a good idea, but don’t expect to see a list of questions every time.
  • Know what you want to say. If you really know what you want to communicate, chances are greatly reduced that you will say something you later regret.
  • Think about the best way to say it. A rambling answer does reporters no good. They need succinct, pithy quotes.
  • And by all means, tell the truth. All smart media interactions begin and end with this fundamental principle.

The power of an effective quote can last for years.

Consider this answer Steve Jobs provided The Wall Street Journal in 1993: “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”

Eighteen years after the interview, Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple and The Wall Street Journal republished the quote. The Business Insider website then posted it as well.

Jobs embodied his message. Talk about creating a win-win!

For more information, please contact David Hertz, senior vice president in Dix & Eaton’s Media Relations Group, at (216) 241-2145, via email at dhertz@dix-eaton.com or on Twitter @dhertz.

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