Sometimes just thinking about speaking to a reporter is enough to make us sweat. We tend to either fidget and act small, or get aggressive and put on our mental boxing gloves.
It’s hard to talk to reporters, because every reporter is different and it’s impossible to predict how a reporter will behave toward you or how accurate their story will be. The only thing you can control is how you will behave toward a reporter, and how strong a spokesperson you will be.
Once you get clear on a spokesperson’s role, the task doesn’t seem so scary. The goal of being a spokesperson is simply to deliver your campaign or organizational message to target audiences. You don’t have to make friends with a reporter, and you don’t have to right all past wrongs by getting belligerent with the media. You just have to deliver your message, and thank reporters for their time.
Of course, with longer interviews you will need to converse and not just deliver a message or soundbite. Acting as a spokesperson in longer interviews is an art, much like the art of negotiation—just remember to be yourself and engage in constructive discussion, while staying focused on your goal and weaving in your message.
Follow these easy tips to more effective interviewing:
• Elect strategic spokespersons. Pick spokespeople who are main characters in your story. They could be people directly affected by the issue you’re working on, an advocate, or a policy “expert” or professional, like a lawyer, who can provide policy context to reporters.
• Personalize the message. Be able to explain your connection to the issue so you can personalize the message. This establishes your credibility as a spokesperson and makes it more likely that your audience will hear your message.
• Know what you will say and what you won’t say. There may be personal details about your own life that reporters will dig into, which are irrelevant to the strategic story you’re trying to tell. Be clear about the pieces of personal information that will help you convey your message, and eliminate those that play into existing stereotypes or simply distract from your message. Remember, you don’t have to answer every question a reporter poses.
• Confront lies, stereotypes and bias. If a reporter asks questions that raise stereotypes, challenge these stereotypes; don’t just ignore them. If you ignore them, the reporter will continue to produce their story based on these stereotypes. Instead, say calmly, “Actually, that’s a myth,” or “That’s a common stereotype, but the reality is…” Redirect their questions to bring the interview back to your message.
• Repeat, repeat, repeat! Repeat your message and soundbites by using pivot phrases like, “The point is…,” “What I’m here to say is…,” “In my experience…,” or “That’s an important question but the real issue is…”
• Practice, practice, practice! Role-play in front of a camera if possible. Then play the videotape back and note whether or not you delivered the message clearly, and if your body language was effective. Use the information in CMJ’s tips below for being an effective messenger as a guide when practicing.