Radio Interviews, Phone Interviews & News Conferences

By George Merlis Monday, August 22, 2011

There are many ways to disseminate news about your achievements, your company, your projects: you can write a blog, send out a press release, initiate a call-in to a podcast or radio talk show, pitch yourself to an individual reporter who covers your area of expertise, or schedule a news conference. Let's look at those last three options in more detail.

Mastering Radio Interviews

In another post I wrote about booking yourself on call-in radio shows. This can be the easiest access you’ll have to media, but live radio is very unforgiving in a number of respects, so let’s deal with live radio media mastery.

There are some basic radio rules. In the article linked above, I emphasized the need to brand. In fact, I put it in all upper case -- BRAND -- because it is so important. On live radio no one will know what company or product you’re talking about if you don’t tell them.

To brighten their speech, they do something old radio pros call “putting teeth in it," which means delivering it with a huge smile on your face. It looks ridiculous but sounds great.

It is a rule of all media mastery that you speak clearly, simply, and in short but complete sentences. Nowhere is that rule as critical as it is in radio where you have only one tool, your voice, to capture the listener's attention. In addition, you need to speak slowly enough for listeners to hear and understand you, but, at the same time, you need to energize your voice.

Make your voice commanding by using inflection and stresses, not by talking at machine-gun speed. A lot of professional radio personalities achieve vocal energy by acting out as they speak or read. That is, they grimace and gesticulate with exaggerated movement. To brighten their speech, they do something old radio pros call “putting teeth in it," which means delivering it with a huge smile on your face. It looks ridiculous but sounds great. And, since it's not TV, no one sees the jack-o'-lantern grin.

Here are some more live radio rules:

Be Brief.

You already know that radio is a non-visual medium without a re-read factor. A very long statement can sound like a speech or a sermon, rather than a conversation. Also speaking at excessive length may spur an interruption by the host. And, even if you are not cut off, your long-winded answers are sure to frustrate listeners and cause their attention to wander. Brevity is not “Yes” and “No,” by the way; “Yes” and “No” are not answers, but the beginning of answers.

Keep It Simple.

Radio listeners get one brief shot at comprehending what you're saying. In media training sessions, I used to tell participants that rather than “dumb down” their answers, just pretend to be talking to their aunt across the table at Thanksgiving dinner and speak at the appropriate level for her to understand without condescending to her. Simplify as much as you can without changing the meaning of what you're saying.

Don’t Pause.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, live radio abhors silence. A listener hunting through the radio dial and hearing no talk, no music, nothing but the “sound of silence,” assumes that there's no station and moves on. Radio interviewers know this and don't want to lose the station surfers, so if you are silent for too long after a question, it's likely your interviewer will begin talking to fill the void. When he's talking, he's using the medium's most precious commodity - airtime - and you are not; you can't deliver your message when he's talking.

In print interviews and in edited broadcast interviews, there’s nothing wrong with pausing after a question is asked, thinking for a beat and then launching into your answer. But in live radio -- and live TV, for that matter -- you can’t afford the luxury of thinking before you speak. And that’s why it’s extremely important that you never go into a live broadcast interview without a well-thought-out, well-rehearsed agenda.

Telephone Interviews with Reporters

At the risk of revealing my age, when I began in journalism, the publisher of my newspaper, The New York World-Telegram and Sun, calculated it cost us about $7 an hour to cover a news story while it cost the local television stations $70 an hour. An added benefit, he said, was that we inky wretches working the telephones could cover more than one story in an hour, while our broadcast rarely could because they had to be on the scene of news in order to get film of the event or interview. And that also meant having four people on the scene  -- a reporter, cameraman, soundman and lighting man. (Back then the latter three always were male.)

Today, with newspaper staffs shrinking, there is even more reliance on the phone for print news-gathering. And nowadays when they get an assignment, radio reporters, too, reach for the phone more often than they reach for their car keys. That’s a good thing for media outlets’ bottom lines and a great thing for us, their interview subjects.

In Media Interview Training Guide, I wrote about the importance of formulating an agenda for each of your media interviews, and of making that agenda come alive with word devices I call grabbers.

The “phoner” is a comfortable format for deploying and sticking to your agenda because it is an open book test. Of course, an open book test does you no good unless you have a book and you’ve opened it. To that end, here’s what I recommend my media training clients do when they are interviewed over the phone.

Tips for speaking to a reporter on the phone:

  • Write out the four or five points of your agenda on separate index cards. And don’t forget a URL for more information.
  • Create a "grabber" for each agenda message point -- an analogy, a comparison, a startling statistic or fact, a brief anecdote, etc. -- and write them on the cards under each message point.
  • Arrange the cards on your desk next to the phone and call the reporter.
  • As you deploy each message point, turn the card over. This will prevent you from hitting any one point repeatedly at the expense of the other points. When all the cards are turned over, turn them back and feel free to hit them again (but don’t reuse the grabbers).

Notice I said call the reporter. “But what,” you say, “if the reporter calls out of the blue and wants to talk right away?” 

Simple, insist on calling back. You need time to prepare. Don’t be cowed into doing an interview without preparation if the reporter says he’s on deadline. More often than not, it’s not true. When I was a cub reporter, I sat next to a grizzled old veteran whose every phone call began with the words, “Jim Howard, World-Telegram and Sun. I’m on deadline....” 

From first call in the morning to last call in the evening, Jim was always on deadline. Why? He didn’t want to be bothered calling someone back or waiting for the interview subject to call him back. Whatever the reason for an on-deadline call, the problem is not yours, but the reporter's. Just be firm and say you’ll call back. Then prepare your index cards and call back.

Holding a News Conference

Before you call a news conference, be sure you have something to say. I teach clients that news conferences should be reserved for truly big news or in response to media inquiries about a major event -- especially a crisis. When you are busy doing damage control in a crisis, the news conference may be the most time-efficient way to handle large numbers of inquiries from diverse media outlets. Since news conferences allow you to reach many media outlets simultaneously, you can save a lot of time.

But a news conference can be more challenging than a one-on-one interview where the reporter‘s questions offer clues to his agenda. In a news conference, reporters may have very different agendas; some of those will mesh with yours, others may conflict. Dodge a question in a one-on-one interview and the reporter may or may not press the point. Dodge a question in front of a dozen reporters and at least a few of them will be waving eagerly to get your attention so they can put your feet back to the fire.

Many news conferences involve media with somewhat varying levels of expertise and interest. The Wall Street Journal reporter is likely to know more and ask more sophisticated questions than a radio reporter from an all-news station. So, you are often faced with the question of how sophisticated to make your answers. Your best bet is to stick to the basics so you don’t exclude the mass audience. If a reporter needs more arcane information, they can often get it from the handout materials.

This brings me to what you should display and hand out at a news conference. I recommend making your presentation as graphically interesting as possible, using slideshows, videos, charts and the like. I also recommend giving the assembled media supporting documentation and all the visuals you use on digital media they can download or take with them. You want to supply reporters with anything that will enhance your message.

Always begin a news conference with an opening statement. If you don't take advantage of that opportunity, you are yielding control of the agenda. Also, deliver the first and last lines of your opening statement from memory. This will go a long way toward engaging the room right from the start. If you are looking down and reading, you are telling the reporters that, in effect, you don’t have mastery over the subject.

It’s important to establish command of the situation even before you speak. Stride in, face the audience and begin your remarks, looking right at them.  Don’t fish in your pockets for materials and notes, don’t grip the lectern to hold you up, and never rest your elbows on the lectern. It looks sloppy and insecure.

You do have control during your opening remarks. The Q & A session is more challenging. Introduce it with a line like: “I'll now take questions for ten minutes.” This serves notice the Q&A session is finite.

Occasionally, reporters are slow to come up with questions. If they are, ask yourself the first question: “I'm frequently asked about....” Always ask yourself a question that enables one of your agenda points. In fact, you can even ask yourself one of the tough questions you anticipate. Doing that shows the media you aren’t afraid of their inquiries and it also enables you to phrase the question in a milder form than a reporter who could ask the same thing in a far more prosecutorial manner.

Dodge a question in a one-on-one interview and the reporter may or may not press the point. Dodge a question in front of a dozen reporters and at least a few of them will be waving eagerly to get your attention so they can put your feet back to the fire.

If hands do go up, take your first question from a reporter who has covered you fairly in the past, because chances are he will do it again. Keep an eye on the clock. If you said ten minutes, at eight or nine minutes, say, “We have time for one or two more questions.”

Take a question from someone you know or from someone representing a reputable outlet. If the question allows you to make one of your agenda points, don’t take a second question (you did say one OR two more questions, not two more questions). If the first question didn’t allow you to make a positive point, take a second one. If that one, too, puts you in the same bind, end it there; there’s no percentage in going on in the vain pursuit of a positive question.

When you end the news conference, that should be the end of your communication with the media for that period of time. Don’t linger behind and answer stray questions. For one thing, it is unfair to reporters who cannot hear your answers. For another, it is a favorite trick of reporters to ask really tough questions once they think your news conference guard is down. It’s a little like throwing a sucker punch at a boxer as he walks up the aisle to the dressing rooms after he’s gone 10 rounds with an opponent. In this case you’re the boxer and you’re likely to sustain a lot more damage in the aisle than you did in the ring.

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