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Meeting the Media
A Guide to Encountering the Media
Why should I agree to give an interview?
No doubt you've heard the expression, "You get what you pay for." If you're paying dearly, you surely want to know everything about your purchase - both the good news and the bad news.
Americans feel the same way about their military. They're paying a high price with their tax dollars, husbands, wives, sons and daughters. As Department of Defense shareholders, they want to know what they're getting for their investment - and they have the right to know.
Without the support of a well-informed American public, our military couldn't accomplish its mission. We must all make every effort to inform the public - commanders and career field experts alike.
That's where you come in. As an Army leader and TRADOC expert in your field, you should view radio, television and newspaper interviews as opportunities to tell the Army story and the TRADOC story.
With assistance from your public affairs staff, the right attitude and proper preparation, you can clearly and positively convey Army messages to the American public - through the media.
Your success during an interview is tied to the quality of your preparation and the level of control you exercise. Although you will probably be asked about your job, don't think an interview is a casual conversation you can just "wing."
For the unprepared, being questioned by the media can be stressful and embarrassing. But if you're prepared, the interview will be an opportunity to make a presentation reflecting professionalism, knowledge and enthusiasm.
This guidance will help prepare you to do just that. It covers:
* composing messages
* rules of engagement
* repeating messages
* answering difficult questions
* successful communication
* do's and don'ts
* categories of questions
* nonverbal communication.
Prepare to Succeed
Preparation is the key to any interview, especially one in front of a camera. You'll have just seconds to professionally state your position while the cameras are rolling.
It isn't the time to formulate quick answers to serious questions. Public affairs can help you anticipate questions and develop messages.
Before the interview, work with public affairs to know everything possible about the interview, what you want to say and how to say it.
Know about the interview
Get the answer to the who, what, when, where, why and how from public affairs.
Who will interview you? What is their background? Do they often interrupt? Do they have prior military service? Do they know much about the military? Who is the audience? Who are the other guests? Who is your point of contact?
What is the subject of the interview? What type of program are you appearing on? What is expected of you? What should you do specifically?
When is the interview? When will it air? When should you arrive?
Where will the interview take place? Where will you sit? Where should you look? Where will the interview air?
Why do they want you? Why are they interested in the subject?
How will the interview be conducted? How will it end? How should you dress?
Know what you want to say
You may know the subject well, the topic may even be your job, but don't assume every question you're asked will be easy to answer.
The public wants answers to the hard questions, so it's the reporter's job to ask them. With public affairs assistance, anticipate the hard questions and plan your answers.
Make a list of all the questions you could possibly be asked. Then attempt to answer the questions using messages - short sound bites of key information you feel the public needs to know.
For example: If you're being interviewed about environmental contamination, you'll want to stress what controls the Army has enacted to prevent further incidents of contamination. This is one of your key messages.
Also, go into an interview with something to say. Know the points you want to make, know what you want the headline or lead to be. Don't rely on the reporter to steer the interview in the direction you'd like. Sure, answer the questions, but also have your own agenda.
For example: You may want to talk about an upcoming community relations event on post to increase attendance. The reporter may cover that lightly then steer the subject to the topic of closure of the installation. Answer the question, then plug the community relations event. Tell the reporter the public is invited out to enjoy the event and learn about your installation and mission, that you and your soldiers enjoy being a part of the community and this event will enhance that relationship.
This technique is called bridging. You're bridging to what you want to talk about.
Finally, you need to practice. Have your public affairs office set up a mock interview or press conference. Or, if there is time, schedule yourself for media training provided by TRADOC Public Affairs.
At least have someone play the role of interviewer so you can rehearse your delivery.
Know how to say it
Never give simple yes or no answers. If you do you're missing your opportunity to deliver a positive message about the Army and TRADOC.
Question: "Is it true that one of your officers was reprimanded for sexual harassment?"
Response: "The Army has zero tolerance for this type of behavior, so we did reprimand an officer who made intolerable comments to a co-worker. We do everything possible to ensure our people work in a friendly, professional atmosphere."
Notice the admission of the problem. It's perfectly all right to admit a problem - just make sure to state the steps being taken to fix the problem.
Get your message across, but don't be long-winded. Your answers should be 15 to 30 seconds long, with your positive message up front. Any longer, and you'll lose your audience. But take a second or two before you respond to the question. Rapid answers could sound rehearsed.
Be personable. Answer questions and deliver messages with interest, passion and conviction.
If you don't sound interested, the audience won't be either.
Get Your Message Across
Once again, before doing any interview, you should know what you want to say. In addition to being knowledgeable about Army issues and messages, you should also be prepared with a few messages of your own. Public affairs can help you with both.
Messages are your "commercials" for use throughout the interview. The can be about the interview subject or other issues.
Make sure your messages are short, memorable and positive. Think of them as sound bites. Use crisp, high-impact words in statements that emphasize the positive. Here are some examples of message you can use for many occasions.
* The Army is prepared to respond to a crisis anywhere, anytime.
* Training in peacetime as we fight in war improves our readiness to respond to any threat to our nation's security.
* The Army is committed to environmental responsibility.
Remember that positive messages can come out of negative events. If you're getting to the bottom of an issue or fixing the problem - that's positive. Use it for the message.
Practice making messages using issues on your installation or in your unit.
Your nonverbals are also important in getting your message across. Research shows that the average audience remembers only seven percent of the words you say. The audience perception of you and the Army depends on your voice, face, uniform, personal charm and credibility.
Also, television has a tendency to flatten your personality and animation, so you'll need to exaggerate your nonverbals a little.
Following are tips about appearance and nonverbal communication:
* Wear service dress (civilians wear equivalent business attire)
* Women should not wear more than their usual amount of makeup and men shouldn't hesitate to ask for makeup at the studio - it helps control perspiration and glare
* Wear over-the-calf socks so your shins don't show when you cross your legs
* Keep jewelry simple
* Shave just before you go to the studio
* Pull the back of your jacket down and sit on it so you don't look like you're wearing shoulder pads
* Wear your glasses if you need to, but tilt them downward very slightly to eliminate glare
* Don't wear sunglasses
* For civilians, wear solid, medium-tone colors; don't wear bright patterns or white - they make color adjustment difficult
* Sit up straight and don't rock or swivel in the chair
* Make frequent hand gestures and facial expressions, but make sure they're appropriate to the subject matter
* Don't rest your elbows on the arms of the chair; you'll find them locked there and you won't be able to make natural gestures
* Bring hand gestures up to your chest, not at your lap or in front of your face
* Maintain eye contact with the reporter; looking at the floor, shifting your eyes back and forth, or avoiding eye contact will make you look dishonest
* Show interest in the program, subject, reporter and interview - convey enthusiasm
* Restrain from making nervous gestures such as looking at your watch or pulling your socks.
Rules of Engagement
An interview with the news media can be polite and conversational if you follw a few basic rules of engagement.
Set the ground rules
First, agree on the ground rules before the interview. Your public affairs adviser should talk to the reporter about the agenda and explain your agenda. If you can't talk about an issue because it is classified (truly classified, not just embarrassing), tell the reporter. You may still be asked about the issue on the air but at least now the reporter is prepared no to do an entire show on something you cannot discuss.
If you're asked a question on the air that you earlier told the reporter you couldn't talk about, don't get upset. Don't say, "You said you wouldn't ask me about that." You will sound like you're hiding something. Instead, answer by saying, "I'm not prepared to talk about details of the subject, because they're classified (or whatever), but I can discuss..."
The second part of the response is called a bridge. With practice, you'll find it easy to bridge from the reporter's question to your message.
Know the definitions
Here are the definitions of terms you will hear often when working with the media:
* On the record - The reporter can use everything you say and attribute it to you by name and title.
* Off the record - The reporter can't use anything you say. Go "off the record" only if the information is vital to the reporter's full understanding of the issue.
* Background - The reporter will use the information but won't directly attribute it to you. "An Army spokesperson" might be used - you and the reporter agree what is the best term.
It is best to always consider yourself "on the record." Do not say anything you wouldn't want to see on the evening news.
If you feel the reporter needs "background" or "off the record" information, tell him before you're near a microphone. Make certain the reporter understands the information is "background" or "off the record" before you give the information.
Speak their language
Avoid Army acronyms, jargon and technical terms. Use analogies to explain technical information in a way that the general public can understand. Your messages should be clear and understandable to every member of your audience.
Argument - don't lose your cool
If the reporters start arguing with you during the interview, keep your composure. You'll appear defensive if you argue. Instead, state your point again and bridge to one of your messages.
There are times, however, when you'll need to step up to a situation and maintain control of the interview. Don't be passive if the reporter is being confrontational.
Try to use personal experiences that the reporter can't argue with. If you say, "I've fired this weapon many times and it handles perfectly," then there is not much for the reporter to argue with - unless he has also fired it.
Honesty is the best policy
Always answer honestly. If you don't know the answer to the question, if the answer is classified, or would invade someone's privacy, say so. Then bridge to your message. Never say, "no comment." To the public, "no comment" means you are hiding something.
There are several types of questions a reporter can ask. Some questions like the easy "softball" question or the "tell me what you do" question, offer you time to stress messages and positive points. Others like the "loaded" or "forced choice" questions, can be tougher to answer.
A technique you'll find very useful is bridging. It's a way of downplaying the question, then saying what you really want to talk about - our messages.
Watch the evening news to see how many of the reporters' questions are answered.
You'll also want to answer the question in the form of a news article. State the most important information first, then fill in the details. In case the reporter interrupts you, you'll have already stated the important information.
Following are common types of questions, techniques to answer them and examples. You and your public affairs officer should anticipate these types of questions when you're preparing for an interview.
Question: What's it like to be a commander of an Army unit?
This question gives you a great opportunity to expound on all your messages. Take advantage. Answer with great enthusiasm. Smile! Use expressive hand gestures. Praise your people - officers, enlisted and civilians.
This is the only type of question where your answer could be more than 15 to 30 seconds. Don't ramble, but don't stop until you've covered all of your positive points and messages.
Response: Commanding this unit is a fantastic job! It is wonderful to work with such talented people...
Question: Do you think your unit will still be involved in this conflict in five years?
Never speculate, and don't answer hypothetical questions. Discount the question and bridge to a message.
Response: I can't see into the future. But I can tell you all of our people - officers, enlisted and civilians - are working hard now and will continue to operate at full speed for as long as they're needed.
False facts and assumptions
Question: So, the Environmental Protection Agency has fined the installation for violating regulations?
Don't repeat the false information in the question. For example, don't say, "No, the EPA has not fined us for violating regulations."
Correct the record and bridge to a message.
Response: That's not correct. We did very well during the recent EPA inspection. The EPA inspector made a few suggestions on how we can better our programs, and, of course we are always interested in ways to improve.
Question: In a recent news article, you were quoted as saying it will be several months until all your mechanics are trained on the new Bradleys. Are you saying that your unit isn't prepared to deploy?
Again, don't repeat the question, set the record straight, then bridge to a message.
Response: Absolutely not. The unit is fully capable of deploying anywhere at a moment's notice. There are a few people who require training on the new system, but we are still able to fulfill our mission.
Question: Did the accident occur because the soldiers involved had been drinking or because they were driving too fast?
Obviously, don't agree if both of the choices are incorrect or the answer is not known. Tell what you can, if the incident is still under investigation, then attempt a positive message.
Response: The incident is under investigation, so at this time, we don't know the cause. We constantly remind our people of all aspects of driver's safety.
Factual about bad news
Question: Can you confirm that two people were seriously injured in an accident?
Don't ever try to hide or gloss over bad news. Admit to the accident, problem or mistake, state your concern, then say how you're going to fix it.
Response: Yes, right now two of our people are recovering in the hospital. We are doing all we can to help them and their families and to ensure this kind of accident doesn't happen again.
Do's and Don'ts
Following are the most important points to remember:
* find out all you can about the interview
* anticipate questions you will be asked
* determine your audience
* write out messages you want to convey
* practice answering the questions
* establish ground rules
* ask for makeup if needed
* wear glasses if you can't see without them
* use frequent but natural hand gestures
* sit up straight in the chair
* smile when appropriate
* convey enthusiasm
* talk about personal experiences
* use simple language your audience is sure to understand
* assume everything you say, even when off camera, will be broadcast or printed
* set the record straight
* stay calm
* always be honest
* bridge to your messages
* take every opportunity to tell the Army story
* fail to prepare
* cover or gloss over the truth
* smile or grin at inappropriate times
* make nervous gestures
* roll or shift your eyes
* say anything you don't want on the air or in print
* use acronyms or technical jargon
* answer hypothetical questions
* use "no comment"
* let the reporter put words in your mouth
* just answer "yes" or "no"
* assume you won't be asked about important issues
* assume the reporter knows nothing about the military