Monday, December 03, 2012

Do your experts blow off media interviews? How to avoid a no-show

A few years back, I was directing communications for a national group and a university communicator invited me to visit her campus and see the work of my group's members there. The media relations guy was tasked with taking me around to meet their experts, and in one lab, we met with a chemist I already knew as a longtime member and research powerhouse.

"Do you offer members media training?" she asked me. I said we offered certain kinds of training. What did she want to accomplish? "Oh, I get these messages to call reporters all the time, and I just throw them away," she said. "I'm not confident about talking to reporters and I don't feel prepared, so I just don't do them, even though I know I should."

Yikes. The media relations guy turned three shades of green, and we wound up having a useful discussion about the help she could get. But I wasn't at all surprised. Even if your information is newsworthy and timely, you've done the right things to get it to the right reporter, and your heart is pure (or even if it isn't), all it takes is an expert who blows off the interview to result in no coverage. When I train scientists and physicians, I like to note that, in my experience, the biggest barrier to getting media coverage of their topics is whether they show up for media encounters.

That's because I hear complaints all the time from reporters who've been pitched with access to experts, only to find their calls don't get returned. In many more places, you'll find experts who just won't talk to reporters at all.  And I've written before about experts who want do-overs, via checking interviews before they go out--a practice reporters have started to note right in their articles. One tactic PR pros have developed, as a result, involves sitting in on interviews--but reporters read that as a desire to control or intimidate the research subject. So what else can you do? Try these tactics:
  • Don't assume agreement: There are plenty of arguments against doing interviews, from an already busy schedule to colleagues who'll talk your expert out of participating. Don't lob interview requests, let alone pitch an expert to reporters, until you've established her agreement to be responsive. 
  • Read the signals correctly: Sometimes, blowing off a call, a media training or some other pre-arranged appointment isn't about being busy. Instead, it may be your introverted scientist's escape hatch from a stressful situation, or the reaction of a highly organized type who feels out of control in this setting. 
  • Make it clear that missing an interview request diminishes reputation: Turn to your well-worn copy of Aesop's Guide to Modern Public Relations and read "The Expert Who Cried Wolf" to your sources--and make it clear that you'd rather they declined to you upfront, rather than blow off the call.  This may work well with experts who blow off the call to show it's not important to them. The best cure: Outing the bad behavior and explaining why it's damaging to your expert's reputation as well as your institution.
  • Understand your corporate culture: In many companies and organizations where I conduct trainings, management or colleagues actively discourage experts from giving interviews--which means no amount of pleading from you will make it happen. In some especially sharp-elbowed places, those who give interviews and get coverage are shunned. That kind of culture requires you to work from the top to gain leadership approval--and from the bottom, to build a grass-roots desire to play. It's a longer path to success, but better than pitching folks who don't ever intend to answer those calls.
  • What's in it for them? Can an interview help your expert get closer to meeting donors, collaborators or more and better exposure? Find out what her goals are, then make sure she knows what the interview can do to get her there.
  • Divide and conquer with friendly competition:  Faced with several different sources of surly subject experts, choose one group that's willing to try and focus your media relations efforts on them--being sure to widely share their successes internally. I guarantee this will raise complaints along the lines of "What about us?" in a useful version of reverse psychology. Just be careful what you wish for, here.
  • Make sure they know you're there: Wince all you want, but I encounter subject experts every day who don't know that they have a communications/public affairs/marketing/media relations shop that can help them with media requests, let alone why they should respond to your messages. A little gentle internal promotion can work wonders.
  • Find out which barriers you can help surmount: One of my best experts used to say, "Media interviews represent 10 percent of my calls and they take up 80 percent of my time." That's a fixable problem, much of the time, and you know how to do that even if your expert doesn't. Let your expert know about the resources you can offer to help make the interview happen. This particular in-demand expert wound up doing regular phone briefings, so he could brief several reporters at one time. Ask what isn't working for them.
  • Give experts the basics about reporter interactions: There's no reason experts should understand even the most basic ways in which journalists operate. Must they call back right away? Should they be ready to be interviewed immediately, or can they set up a more convenient time? How can they avoid misunderstandings without asking to see the story before it runs? Those sound obvious to you, but they're also the most common questions I get when conducting media trainings. Share with your experts my list of 11 questions to ask reporters, many based on reporters' suggestions, so they'll be ready.
  • Offer practice time and training: The best way to make interviews familiar is to practice. Offering to run through tough questions or train your expert on what to expect in an interview can let them work through their worst fears and most dire concerns in practice--with less risk. 
Want more insights like these? Sign up for my popular workshop, Be an Expert on Working with Experts, designed just for communicators who work with smart people like scientists, engineers, policy wonks and more. The workshop takes place January 10, 2013--but you get a great discount if you register sooner, by December 21 at midnight, Eastern Time. Bring members of your media relations team with you...many smart communicators do. The workshop also works for government relations and development pros.

This post updates and expands one I published in 2011.

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