Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Media interview smarts: Don't blame the reporter. Correct yo'self, 2 ways

Many sources submit to media interviews, then complain mightily about the results. They were misquoted. Repeatedly misquoted. The reporter didn't get the nuances. They didn't have the chance to review the piece before it appeared, so OF COURSE there were errors.

In my long years of experience in media relations, I learned that many of these complaining interviewees were throwing shade because they wanted to cover up a misstatement, or because they didn't know how to manage themselves in the interview. In either case, there are easier solutions than blaming the reporter, and they're both in your control, not the reporter's control. So why aren't you using them?

I'm referring to self-corrections. Too many subjects feel they should aim for glossy perfection when facing the press. Never admit you just blurted out something incorrect, the feeling goes. But in fact, it's during the interview that you have the best chance to correct something, not later. Do it in either or both of these two ways:
  1. While your sentence is still in progress. Started to speculate there about something you don't actually know? Going too far out on a limb? Overstating a fact you do know? Appearing to criticize someone while realizing the price you'll pay? It almost doesn't matter what the mistake is. Just stop yourself mid-sentence and say, "You know what? That isn't correct. What is correct is...." or "Let me stop myself. I don't want to speculate" or "I'm sorry, I misspoke. I really don't know what Fred's thinking is on this issue. Why don't you check with him directly?" I had a media training client who did a great job sticking to his facts until he got the inevitable reporter questions inviting him to guess at something he didn't know. He'd say, "Probably you're right about that," then invent something. So anytime he heard the word "probably" come out of his mouth, he'd stop and decline the opportunity to speculate. Saved him a world of trouble.
  2. Before you close the interview. If you topic is complex and nuanced, or you aren't sure what point of view the reporter is developing, at the end of the interview ask her to review for you the sense of what you just said. You can say, "I'd like to review what your understanding is on this topic, now that we've talked," or just, "Let's review what we've covered here. Tell me what you're taking away from this." Then you have an opportunity to correct the reporter on the spot, before the story gets written. You won't get--from most news organizations--the chance to review anything in advance, but this method actually works. Use it frequently.

What if the reporter quotes you backtracking? Far better that than going out on the end of the limb and sawing it off behind you. Then practice avoiding overstatements for next time.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by stevebustin)

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