Making the Most of Media Training

by Krysten Carrera, MPA

We communicators often depend on our spokespeople to deliver messages to the media. A slam-dunk interview can give free exposure to your organization, shape the arc of a story, cultivate a relationship with a reporter, and more. When someone goes off-message, it can cause a public relations nightmare. How can we help our interviewees feel confident and increase the odds of success? Like many things in life, the key is preparation. Here are general tips for making the most of the time you spend training a spokesperson for a media interview.

  • Make your spokesperson comfortable. Because engaging with media understandably can make people feel vulnerable, I’ve found that a “safe space” makes it easier to discuss sensitive topics or express doubts. Try to schedule your training session in a quiet place similar to where the actual interview will occur. When possible, I like to limit the number of people in the room. If you’re meeting the interviewee for the first time, take a few minutes to get to know them and establish trust.
  • Establish ground rules. If this is the spokesperson’s first time, give the lay of the land and ensure they have realistic expectations of the interview’s purpose.  The ins and outs of media interviews may seem like common sense to us, but people who don’t work in communications for a living will need some coaching. Go over what an interview is: a business exchange and an opportunity for the interviewee and your organization. And be sure to go over what it’s not: a friendly conversation or (necessarily) a cross-examination.
  • Reinforce the “interview” mindset. A savvy reporter can make a spokesperson forget that every word they say is on-the-record; that includes small talk before the actual interview. Remind them they should try not to speculate. Above all else, they should realize they are representing their agency. Even if they preface a statement by saying it’s just their personal opinion, the reporter or reader may still interpret it as your agency’s official position.
  • Discuss effective message delivery. I’ve found it effective to have people envision what they would do naturally when discussing their work at a dinner party or family reunion, and translate those things into the conversation with the reporter. Simple, succinct explanations reduce the risk of miscommunication with whomever they’re talking to. Anecdotes and metaphors make their messages more memorable, and in an interview, increase their chance of being quoted.
  • Build confidence around unknowns. Ask them to imagine the worst possible questions they could be asked. What does your spokesperson least want to discuss? Role-playing various scenarios will increase their confidence so they’re ready to tackle anything. Often they aren’t even asked the dreaded questions, which makes the interview seem easy compared to what they had imagined. They can do this!
  • Teach troubleshooting. Remind your interviewee that they are in control of the interview and have more power than they may think to stay on-topic. During your training session, throw out a few left-field questions to practice how to divert the topic back to their area of expertise; check out last month’s FCN post for a deeper dive into that area. Stating the two or three top takeaways early and often in the interview will drive home what is most important.
  • Train, do, repeat: Even the most seasoned veterans benefit from reminders of best practices. I recommend a general refresh every year or so,  given by your organization’s main spokesperson, with ad-hoc meetings for different opportunities as they arise. People with less experience may need additional sessions to feel ready.

Smartly approached interviews can make the press a valuable partner in your communications strategy. With the right preparation and a little luck, an interview will result in a balanced and accurate story that acknowledges your organization and quotes your spokesperson. When you see that, you’ll be glad you took the time to make the most of media training. Best of luck!  

Krysten Carrera, MPA, has held public affairs positions at HRSA, the NIH, the FDA, and the State Department, including the U.S. Embassy in Madrid.