Being interviewed by a newspaper journalist and a television or radio journalist are two very different experiences.
The interviewer’s approach is different. The timings are different. The dynamics are different.
The main difference, and one that can influence the entire way an interview is conducted, is how long the interview will last.
First of all, let’s look at how a newspaper journalist sets about conducting an interview.
There are occasions when a newspaper reporter might only want to talk to a spokesperson, expert or someone involved in a news story for just a few seconds. A news story has broken at 7:30 PM. The reporter’s deadline is 8 PM, when the newspaper goes to print. In 30 minutes, the reporter has half a dozen people he or she needs to speak to about the breaking story. They’re on the phone non-stop. That means that if you’re the spokesperson involved, the reporter might give you a quick phone call and speak to you for no more than a minute, or even less, just to get a quote out of you or a brief reaction to the breaking story.
If it’s not a fast-moving, breaking story that the journalist is following up, but instead one that could be reported on tomorrow or the day after, the reporter has all day to follow up on the story. He or she might want to speak to you on the phone or come to your office and interview you for 20 minutes, half-an-hour, 45 minutes or even an hour or longer.
In such circumstances, the pace of the press interview is normally quite measured. There is no sudden urgency to get the interview over and done with very quickly.
Although the reporter might be recording the interview on a dictaphone or mobile phone, they will also be taking down notes. This results in the occasional moment when there will be a pause in the interaction between the reporter and the person they are interviewing.
For example, you are the spokesperson being interviewed in your office by a reporter. The reporter puts a question to you. You answer the question. When you’ve finished answering, the reporter might still be writing down a few words – the concluding sentence or two of your answer. That means there are a few seconds of silence between the pair of you. That’s a precious moment. It allows you a brief window to reflect on how the interview is going. For example, in the answer you have just given you might have omitted a very important point. During those few moments of silence while the reporter is completing his notes, there is a chance for you to think to yourself, “Oh no, I completely forgot to mention…” You then have a chance in your next answer to go back over the point you’ve just made and add what you forgot to mention in the previous answer.
Or, you have completed your answer and you know it was not very good. You did not explain things very clearly. This time you think to yourself, “I’d better go back over that point again because I didn’t get it across very well”.
These moments are rare in the broadcast interview, as I will explain later.
When arranging to meet a newspaper reporter, it’s also important to get a grip on when the interview begins and when it ends. Journalists take in information before and after the formal interview.
For example, the journalist might arrive 40 minutes early for his or her interview with you. The reporter is in your office lobby waiting to be shown upstairs. The journalist gets chatting with somebody else sitting in the reception area. It turns out it’s an employee who is thinking of quitting the company because of its poor environmental record or whatever. That conversation might give the journalist enough information to supersede what he learns from you. The story in tomorrow’s newspaper therefore turns out quite differently to what you expected.
Be careful, too, about the conclusion of an interview. The journalist might close their notebook, turn off their mobile phone, and say that concludes things. They might express their gratitude for your time and for providing such useful information. “I’ve got a good article out of this,” they might say as they close their notebook.
Then, as they’re putting on their coat, the journalist might run by you what they picked up in the office lobby while waiting, saying, “I’ve heard that your environmental programme is coming under attack. What’s going on?”
As it happens, you are one of the few people in your company with deep concerns about climate change and your company’s environmental record. “It’s the guy in charge of our environmental programme who is the problem. He just goes through token efforts to prove our gas emissions, our waste and so on comply with what’s expected of a major company like us. It’s all PR. We’re way behind other companies when it comes to environmental responsibility.”
Thanks to that final conversation after the interview ended, the reporter now has a far better story to go with than the topic of the interview. They have a far juicier article to write.
This brings us to the “on the record” and “off the record” codes in print journalism.
It is not advisable to go “off the record” with any reporter unless you know that journalist very well or you have been advised by your communications department that the correspondent coming to interview you is well known to the company and can be trusted. The golden rule is, don’t say anything to a journalist that you would not like to see on the front page of tomorrow morning’s newspaper.
That’s not to say that you should never go “off the record”. Provided you trust the journalist you are meeting, going ”off the record” can work in your favour.
Let’s say the government in your country is proposing some new tax legislation that will seriously harm companies in your industry sector. At this early stage, while the legislation is still under discussion, you don’t want to come out with all guns blazing. Your company doesn’t want to launch a media assault on the government in case it backfires, and they make the harmful tax legislation even more harmful.
On the other hand, you would like the industry’s stiff opposition to the new legislation to become central in the whole debate. By going “off the record” with a trusted reporter you can get your opposition to the legislation out there in the public domain, thereby influencing discussions, without your or the company’s name being disclosed. The reporter, in their article, will include your anti-legislation comments in their article but attribute those remarks not to you or your compony but to “industry sources”, thereby hiding your identity.
We now move onto broadcast interviews – television and radio – which, as made clear above, are quite different to being interviewed by a press journalist.
Whereas a press journalist has more time to conduct their interviews, with a typical “live” interview on a 24-hour news channel you are looking at two, three, four or maybe five minutes as the duration. That might change if you’re a really important person or the story you’re being interviewed about is big.
What’s important to bear in mind is that, although the broadcast interview might be comparatively short, it’s wrong to think that you can simply glide your way through it without any preparation because it’s so short. Your approach should not be that, “I know this subject 100%. I’ve been working in this department for 10 years. All the facts and information are in my head. It’s a complete waste of time to prepare.”
That’s exactly the wrong approach to take.
It’s because you do have so much knowledge and background experience about the topic of the interview that you do need to prepare. Otherwise, you will go into the studio with far too much information washing around in your brain. This means you have no sense of direction as far as the interview is concerned. You don’t know where you want to go. That will result in your handing more control over to the interviewer. He or she might want to take the interview in a completely different direction to where you want to go. If you can’t keep the interview on your track, by knowing what you want to say, you’re at the mercy of the interviewer who might want to go down a completely different route – one that’s not where you want to head.
So, preparation for a broadcast interview means accepting that, in most cases, a TV or radio interview will be considerably shorter than a press interview. Preparation means slimming down that huge body of knowledge you have about the topic of the interview to no more than two or three key points.
Perhaps you’ll be appearing on Breakfast News tomorrow morning. This afternoon you have a meeting with your communications chief to decide how the interview should go. That involves deciding what are the two or three key messages you want to get across and be heard by millions of viewers. It will be a struggle for you to get these points across if they’re not at the forefront of your mind when you go into the interview and the words behind those messages are not well-rehearsed the night before.
There are one or two other aspects of the broadcast interview to be aware of, as they differ from those of the press interview.
Because they have more time for their interview, a press reporter can spend time “warming you up”.
Let’s say the journalist has come to interview you about an issue that is not controversial. It’s an interview you’re happy to give. However, the journalist is aware of another issue surrounding your company or organisation that he or she would also like to get into. It has all the makings of a scandal and therefore a damn good news story.
Let’s suppose you are the head of community investment at the company you work for. Today, you are launching a project in which you cooperate with local charities in the developing world to support children who are living poverty. However, the newspaper reporter who’s come to interview you about this has also been tipped off about an environmental scandal surrounding your company, namely that the person in charge of environmental responsibility is useless.
A press journalist can spend half-an-hour discussing the children’s charity and thereby “warming you up”, making you feel cosy in the presence of the reporter and thinking that he or she is on your side. After 30 minutes of relaxing you, the press reporter will then hit you with questions about the environmental scandal. This might unnerve you, as it’s come from out of the blue, and it has been some time coming. It’s not been a missile hitting you at the very start of the interview.
By contrast, a broadcast interviewer has to adopt a very different approach.
You’re appearing on a 24-hour news station to talk about your charity programme. News of your environmental shortcomings has featured in this morning’s newspapers. That’s a big story. Given the fact that the broadcast interviewer might have only three or four minutes to talk to you, compared to the half-hour that the press reporter might have, the TV presenter has to hit you with this environmental issue at the very start of the interview. Trying to lull the interviewee into a false set of security doesn’t work in a TV or radio interview. There’s no time for this.
Taking all the above into account means that when you are preparing to be interviewed by journalists, it’s important to be aware of the different dynamics that come into play with a press interview compared to a broadcast interview.
Be very clear in your mind which newspaper a press journalist is representing and whether they have a friendly or hostile record when it comes to dealing with your company or organisation. Does the newspaper have an agenda, favourable or unfavourable, in its coverage of your company, organisation or industry?
With regard to a broadcast interview, particularly if it is “live” on air, be very clear about what else is around when it comes to news.
If you’re going onto Breakfast News tomorrow morning, make sure you watch the TV news tonight and the radio news while you’re heading to the TV studio in the morning in a taxi. There might be some breaking news that touches on your company or organisation, however remotely, that might prompt a question from your TV interviewer.
For example, you’re a football club manager. It’s Friday morning. You’re on Radio 5 Live to talk about your club’s appearance in tomorrow’s FA Cup Final.
Overnight, news has broken that climate change protesters will be blocking all the access roads to Wembley Stadium tomorrow, thereby preventing thousands of football fans reaching the ground.
If I was interviewing you, my first question would not be, “How many team changes will you make for tomorrow’s final?”
Instead, it would be, “To what extent would you condemn the climate change activists for closing down Wembley Stadium on one of the most important sporting days of the year?”
“Where did this question come from?” the football manager asks himself as he gasps in surprise.
Well, it’s all over this morning’s news. Be prepared for that.