Even Presidents Mess This Up

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A story just popped up at the top of Google News with the following headline: Bill Clinton on Hillary and wealth: ‘She’s not out of touch.’

Yikes.

Bill Clinton, former president of the United States and as experienced a media hand as you’ll find, had just made a rookie mistake. I listened to the video, which was a Meet the Press interview, and there was a palpable thud when he said it. As if everyone knew he’d slipped.

When answering questions, it’s imperative to never, ever repeat the negative. If someone calls you a jerk, do not respond by saying “I’m not a jerk.”

State the positive: “I’m a nice person.”

Why? When we repeat the negative we emphasize it. We make it real. We assure the everybody’s heard it, even those who have not.

In the case of President Clinton, the headline saying Hillary was not “out of touch” simply reminded voters that there was concern in some quarters that Mrs. Clinton was, indeed, out of touch. Instead, the president could simply have said, “She’s well in touch with ordinary Americans.” No bad headline would have come from that.

I’ve written about this before but wanted to use the Clinton headline to point out just how easy this is to do. After all, if a seasoned interview subject like President Clinton could mess this up, anyone could fall into this trap. And a trap it is.

The best way to avoid this is to be alert for it. If you are giving an interview and there are negatives abound, be aware of them and practice before you do your interview. You can write out the potential negative questions and script answers that do not repeat the negative allegations.

With a little practice, you can learn to avoid making this painful mistake.

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Easy Interview Prep for Public Relations

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It’s all about the interview.

The secret to good PR, after coming up with a solid story idea and getting reporters interested, is executing the interview well. Interview preparation for public relations is a highly critical skill.

Unfortunately, it is also a highly neglected endeavor. For a variety of reasons, executives often find themselves in the midst of interviews for which they are poorly prepared. This can lead to a number of negative outcomes such as losing the story entirely and, even worse, having the story turn negative for your company.

These disasters can be avoided with some solid interview prep. Below is a step-by-step guide to making interview prep for public relations quick and easy.

Easy Interview Prep for Public Relations

  • Have your talking points ready. This can be as simple as jotting down a handful of bullet points, or, if you prefer, writing a detailed document with facts and figures. The key is to have your messaging — what you want to get across in the interview — at your fingertips. If you’re going live on TV or meeting in person with a reporter, you’ll, of course, need to memorize your talking points. They key is knowing your messaging before you sit down to be interviewed.
  • Research your reporter/outlet. You don’t want to be surprised by your reporter’s questions when your interview begins, so you should be aware of your reporter and news outlet’s background and approach before you begin. Your publicist should do this for you. But if not, you’ll need to conduct a little research. Is the reporter an investigative journalist or a feature writer? Does the reporter’s beat suggest a high level of subject knowledge or is he or she a generalist? What kind of story is the outlet looking for?
  • Practice your questions & answers. Publicists call this Q&A and it typically begins with a document that lists the toughest questions you expect and bullet points on how to answer them. Importantly, creating the document is only Part 1. It’s critical to practice with these questions — 15 or 20 minutes may do just fine — to develop a level of comfort in handling them. Your publicist can “play” the reporter and you can work back and forth in a mock interview.
  • Determine your ground rules. This creates the playing field and you should know how you want to proceed before you ever sit down to answer questions. For example, it can be very helpful to set a time limit, say 15 minutes, for the entire interview. This can help keep the reporter focused and let you know much time you need to spend on the hot seat. Also, determine in advance whether the whole interview is on the record or not. If not, make sure you and the reporter agree on what can and cannot be used.
  • Make sure you’re available on pitch day. It sounds obvious, I know, but once all the other prep is done, make sure you’re actually going to be available on pitch day. Available means being ready to take reporters’ calls and, if necessary, traveling to TV studios on short notice. If you’re got a 6 hour board meeting in the middle of announcement day, you’re not truly available. Likewise, if you’re not dressed appropriately for TV interviews, you’re not available. A successful pitch can be totally undermined if the interview subject is not ready to go.

Are there other things you can do to be ready for interviews? Sure. If you’ve never done press interviews before, you might consider some professional media training. We use video cameras so clients can not only practice, but see and hear how they conduct interviews.

You can also get involved in the initial development of your company’s story pitches so you know what’s coming and can make sure the messaging you’ll be called on to deliver is comfortable for you.

However, if time is short, just follow the steps above for easy interview prep for public relations. You’ll be well ahead of the game.

The Three A’s of Media Interviews: Availability, Availability, Availability

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When I first started thinking about this post, I was going to list the key attributes of a good interview. After all, being interviewed is a key component of effective public relations. Why not do it well?

Then, it struck me that many folks never get to the stage of actually being interviewed. They miss out because they’re simply too slow in reacting.

So here are the three A’s of media interviews, much like the three L’s of real estate:

  1. availability
  2. availability
  3. availability

That’s the key. If you’re going to seek our reporters to discuss the good ideas you have, then you need to be available when they call. Whenever that is.

This seems obvious, but I can’t begin to recount the number of times when, as a reporter, I called sources — even those who had been pitched to me — only to have them call back well after my deadline had passed, sometimes the next day. This doesn’t even begin to work. It tells the reporter that the source, or his or her PR folks, simply don’t understand the reporter’s needs.

Journalists who have daily deadlines or shorter — include here newspaper, wire service, online, and daily broadcast reporters — need to conduct their interviews as quickly as possible. And as early in the day as they can.

For example, a reporter might call at 10 a.m. and say he or she is working on a story about Topic A and has a deadline of 4 p.m. (If they don’t give you the deadline, always ask.)

This doesn’t mean you have 6 hours to consult with your PR folks, decide you want to do the interview, confirm with the reporter, have your folks research the issue, have them write up talking points, review the talking points … and then do the interview. The reporter is going to want to have his or her interviews done quickly, leaving enough time to write or produce the story, run it by an editor and then have some additional time to self-edit the piece.

When I was on a tight deadline as an AP reporter, I’d start calling down my source list until I had completed enough interviews to satisfy myself I had the story nailed. Then, no more interviews. I was done. The rest of the time was for thinking and crafting the story.

If someone called back after I’d completed my interviews, I had to politely decline.

The moral of the post is this: If a reporter comes calling, react quickly. Make a decision, get your thinking in order — and do the interview. Do it as soon as you can.

A mediocre source available immediately is far, far better than a great source who’s not available. The story needs to go out. If you can help make that happen, then you’ll become a valuable source to the reporter both in that instance and in the future. And the reporter will know you “get it.”

Phone Interviews — Keep Them One-on-One

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When it’s time for that phone interview you’ve promised a reporter at an important outlet, it’s sometimes tempting to put several sources on the line simultaneously to assure your team can answer all possible questions. It seems natural enough. Don’t we often have several people around a speaker phone for conference calls?

Well, yes we do. But reporter interviews are different, and I’d recommend thinking long and hard before coming at reporters with multiple sources on one call.

The reason is simple. It’s confusing.

Remember, the reporter may be on the phone with your folks for the first time. It’s hard enough to get to know one person on the telephone. But two, three or four? That is very difficult — perhaps impossible.

Also, from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint reporters take notes during interviews and will try to get a few quotes down verbatim. If you’ve got multiple new voices, it’s sometimes hard to know who’s talking. That makes it far tougher for the reporter to get the quotes he or she needs.

Now, there may be times when you feel you simply must have more than one source on the line. Say, for example, you’ve got someone new to the organization and you want a second source with more experience to help out and assure errors aren’t made. In that case, it’s important to limit your call to just two sources and make sure they re-introduce themselves frequently when they resume talking. Something like, “Hi. This is Bill again …”

Ideally, however, one person on the phone is enough. If you want to schedule interviews with mutliple sources within the company, that’s fine. Just hold separate calls. That way, the reporter can prepare for each.

I recall my days as a reporter, and I’d always dread the mutliple-source calls PR folks liked to set up. It was more efficient for them, but far more difficult for me. Perhaps because of this, I work very hard to make it as easy as possible for the reporter — whose happiness is always one of my top priorities.