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• Assessing the Interview Request
• Establishing Ground Rules
• Once the Interview Is Agreed To
• During the Interview
• Staying Focused
• Being Effective on Television
• After the Interview

As much as possible, interviews of government officials should be part of any media strategy. Before agreeing to do an interview, a government official should thoroughly plan what he or she would like to achieve and identify who the audience will be. Writing a headline that you would like to see on the story of your hypothetical interview will help you focus on the message to get across.

"An interview request should be viewed from the prism of 'will this forward my principal's agenda?' " says Juleanna Glover, press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney. "Each request should be researched to establish an author's style or biases, and the parameters for discussion should be set."

Assessing the Interview Request
• What is the medium and who is the interviewer?
• How much time is requested; what is the deadline?
• When will the interview be printed or aired, and what kind of story is it?
• What is the media type? For TV, will it be live, taped for uncut airing, or taped for excerpting? And for print, what section of the newspaper or magazine will it be in, and will there be photographs?
• May the interviewee provide visuals?

Assessing the Interview Request

When an interview request comes in, getting answers to certain questions will help you assess the request. These include:

  • What is the topic or news angle of the interview?
  • What was the impetus for the story?
  • Which publication — or TV or radio system — wants to do the interview?
  • Who will the interviewer be?
  • When and where do they want the interview?
  • How much time is the reporter requesting for the interview?
  • What is the story deadline?
  • When will the interview be published or broadcast on air?
  • What kind of a story is it? A news story? A profile story? A feature ? A question-and-answer format?
  • Is anyone else being interviewed for the story?
  • What are the characteristics of the media outlet and the reporter?

It is useful to find out:

  • If the media outlet has an apparent point of view on the subject.
  • How much the reporter knows about the topic.
  • If the reporter or media outlet has done anything on the topic in the past. Check press clippings.
  • How friendly or antagonistic the reporter is.
  • What the audience of the news outlet is.
Other questions to ask regarding a radio or TV interview include:

  • Will it be a live broadcast?
  • Will the interview be conducted in a studio, by phone, in the government official's office, or in some other location?
  • Will it be by remote, with the interviewer not physically present but asking questions from another site while connected by satellite transmission?
  • Is the interview being taped for uncut airing, or is it being taped for excerpting?
  • Will the broadcast include call-ins or e-mails from viewers, listeners, or an on-line audience?
  • How long will the broadcast last?
  • What is the show's format? A panel? One interviewer and one guest? Two interviewers and one guest? Two guests debating?
  • If there are other guests, in what order will they speak?
  • Will it be before an audience? How will the audience be selected?
  • Can visual props be used?
  • Will film clips or videotape inserts be used? If so, will the press office have an opportunity to review them and prepare comments or responses?

Other questions for a print interview include:

  • In which section of the publication will the article appear?
  • Will a photographer accompany the reporter and take pictures?
  • Will photos be taken before, during, or after the interview?

Establishing Ground Rules

For any interview, you want to establish ground rules — regarding, for example, whether you are speaking on or off the record, whether the interview is live or taped, and the length of the interview — before the interview occurs. Don't attempt to do so during or afterwards; then, it's too late. For instance, if the reporter requests a half an hour for an interview, you can limit it to a shorter period of time. If the request is for a "remote" hook up, you could request that it be in person. If you have a choice, it is often better to have the interview in person. An in-person interview is more intimate and conversational. You can see the other person's body language. You don't require a sound piece in your ear that could fall off or have sound that is interrupted.

In the United States, interview subjects generally don't have the opportunity to review their interviews or quotes before they are published or the segment is shown on radio or TV, although this is sometimes done in some countries. If you want to review the interview in advance, establish that ahead of time.

Once the Interview Is Agreed To
• Have three points to make in the interview and have examples, anecdotes, and sound bites to support them.
• Have practice questions and answers.
• Practice!
• Get an update on the news before giving the interview.
• Set ground rules before the interview.

Once the Interview Is Agreed To

It is important that the person being interviewed have three points to make in the interview. This will keep the interview focused. More than three major points is too much for the audience to absorb.

It is the role of the press office to develop this information. Before the interview determine:

  • What three points the interview subject would like to make.
  • For each point, write down supporting information — examples, stories, anecdotes. These help the reader, listener, or viewer better understand the points. For example, if one point is advocacy of a new economic policy, write down reasons why the current policy is being changed, what the changes mean, and how the public will be affected.
  • Write down the questions you think will be asked during the interview and the responses that you think should be given. Address more topics than the three key issues, however. Reporters often move from the intended interview topic to other issues.
  • Review important topics in the news to help you think of potential questions.

In developing questions and responses, answer these questions:

  • What is the most controversial issue that could be raised and the most delicate topic that could be addressed?
  • What would be the hardest question to answer and why?
  • To help you shape a story, think of a good quote, or "sound bite," to give during the interview. A sound bite is a short, pithy statement regarding a larger issue that appears to be spontaneous but in most cases is prepared. Often, it is repeated in the story, particularly by the radio and TV media.
  • Decide whether you will tape the interview in addition to the reporter's taping it. Taping often is a good idea both to verify the statements that have been made and to inform key staff members who did not hear the interview.
  • Practice answering possible questions.
  • Arrange a quick update on hot issues just before the interview. The briefer, typically the press secretary, should update the government official with last-minute news. Don't let the official be caught off guard.
  • Provide the reporter with information in advance of the interview that might be helpful to your issues. These could be items such as biographies, fact sheets, articles, photographs, and reports.
  • Don't be afraid to suggest questions and topics for the interviewer to ask.

During the Interview
• Stay on message with your three points.
• Be concise and clear.
• Give anecdotes, facts, examples.
• Never say "no comment."
• Tell the truth; don't be afraid to say you don't know an answer if you don't.

During the Interview

Make the interview yours. Much more than you may think, you can control the interview. Just because you are asked questions does not mean you can't control what you say. As one U.S. president once said: "There are no such things as bad questions, only bad answers."

Do the following:

  • Establish the ground rules of attribution before beginning the interview. Typically, the interviewee speaks on the record. If that is not already clear, make it clear before beginning.
  • Be concise; don't bury important points in long answers with too many details. Speak in short, clear, declarative sentences.
  • Speak in sound bites.
  • Stay on message and return to the three key points frequently during the interview. Relate all questions back to them.
  • State your conclusions and most quotable lines first to get your main points across; then back them up with facts.
  • Use positive, descriptive word images that people can understand.
  • Give proof. Use facts, statistics, examples, anecdotes, quotes, and stories. People remember what affects them, what motivates them, and what others' experiences are. Word pictures, such as "as big as a pick-up truck" rather than just "big," are what people recall.
  • Don't assume that the facts speak for themselves. Explain your answers clearly and succinctly. Not every reporter or reader or listener will know as much about a subject as you do.
  • Stay positive. If you are asked a negative question, get back to your main points.
  • Correct any misinformation quickly.
  • Never say anything that you don't want to see in print or hear broadcast.
  • Avoid making statements that can be taken out of context or be misconstrued if the reporter or editor chooses to use only that part of your statement and not what came before or after.
  • Never say "no comment." You can, and sometimes should, avoid comment by saying something like, "I'm not prepared to discuss that today" or "It would be inappropriate for me to discuss that at this point."
  • Don't use jargon.
  • Be clear. Don't leave it up to the media to interpret what you mean. They might get it wrong.
  • Always tell the truth. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. Get back to the interviewer with the answer later.

Staying Focused

Use bridging phrases or words to get back to your three points, such as:

  • "The real issue is...."
  • "Let me add..."
  • "It is important to emphasize..."
  • "It is important not to overlook..."
  • "What's more important is..."
  • "The most important point to remember is..."
  • "Along those lines, another question I'm often asked is...."
  • "That deals with one aspect of a larger issue..."
  • "Yes, and in addition to that..."
  • "No, let me clarify..."
  • "It's a bit too early to talk about that until all the facts are in, but I can tell you..."
  • "I'm not sure about that, but what I do know is ...."
  • "Let me put this into perspective...."
  • "That reminds me of..."
  • "Let me emphasize that..."
  • "I'm glad you asked me that. People may have that misconception, but the truth is..."

Always try to make the interview yours. As former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once quipped at a press conference: "Does anyone have any questions for my answers?"

Being Effective on Television

  • Look directly at the interviewer if the interview is in person. Look at the camera if the interview is by remote and the interviewer is elsewhere. The camera becomes the person to whom you are talking.
  • Be enthusiastic and energetic; television can flatten and make a person appear bland.
  • Wear solid colors, light but not white or total black. Mid-range colors are the best. Do not wear browns, plaids, stripes, or loud prints. Do not wear flashy, shiny fabrics.
  • For women, do not overaccessorize your clothes, such as wearing obtrusive earrings that could detract from your message.
  • For men, do not wear a shirt darker than your tie.
  • Sit forward. Lean into the camera.
  • Use natural hand gestures so you don't appear stiff or uncomfortable.
  • Don't give monosyllabic answers.
  • Don't use trade or technical jargon or acronyms that are not familiar to the average citizen.
  • Jump into the conversation if you want to clarify a point or add to the conversation. Don't wait for the host to recognize you, but don't behave rudely.
  • Avoid using too many numbers. They bypass the audience. When you must use numbers, round them off so they are more easily absorbed. For example, instead of saying "four-hundred-and-forty-four thousand," say "almost half a million."

After the Interview

  • If you promised additional information to the reporter, follow up immediately.
  • Debrief the media staff so they know what to expect.
  • Evaluate the interview. Note for your file: What went well in the interview? What could have gone better? Keep the notes for the next interview or press conference.
  • Get the name of the reporter, producer, and sound technician conducting the interview and update your media list.
  • File the news clipping or tape from the interview in a permanent archive.

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