Most people claim to be afraid of public speaking. So it is not surprising some clients and PR professionals feel reluctant to be thrust into the spotlight of a broadcast interview to be grilled by a baying media. But as PRWeek discovered in a recent training session, print interviews can be far more damaging.
With several high profile media appearances dominating the news at the end of last year, including the Murdochs and various celebrities giving evidence in front of the Leveson Inquiry's select committee, PRWeek decided to get advice on the best way to handle different types of interviews.
We invited media training company Harvey Leach to conduct a half-day training session for deputy editor Cathy Bussey and associate editor Kate Magee. The company has trained staff from major companies including First Direct, Nissan, Everything Everywhere and Santander.
Our tutors were company co-founder Andrew Harvey, one of the few presenters to have fronted all of the BBC's daily news programmes as well as working on ITV, and senior tutor Ann Bird. Bird has worked as a journalist for 20 years, launching the health section and as executive features editor on the Daily and Sunday Express.
Our task was to face interviews on our 'minimum wage for interns' campaign. We were thrown into three interviews - in print, radio and TV. Our performances were analysed and advice given. While it is tempting to think all interviews are the same, each medium requires a different approach. Here is some key advice.
Radio listeners are usually doing other things at the same time. So they need to hear simple, vivid sound bites and a pleasant voice. When discussing an issue, try to paint a picture and help the audience connect. An example would be: 'Just imagine there's someone who has struggled to go to university ...'
With any broadcast interview, time is limited, so preparing your key messages in advance is crucial. 'Far too many people do not prepare, but this is essential for a successful interview. Your thinking should be done before the interview,' says Harvey. Make sure you can get your point across in simple language that is free of jargon, and try to get the main points across in your answer to the first question.
Most people think of the combative style of journalists like Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys when they think about broadcast interviews.
But Harvey says 95 per cent of interviews are not like this. In most, the interview is being led by a journalist who may not know much about the subject because they have been given inadequate time to prepare. He advises interviewees to use the 'bridging' technique to take control of an interview. This is where you use phrases that link one question to another, such as 'but the key point', or we did a survey that showed ...'
Keep up your levels of enthusiasm. Even though you may be doing several interviews on the same topic, remember the different audiences have not heard it before.
It sounds obvious, but the major difference with TV is that it broadcasts images, which can distract viewers from what you are saying. The old adage - that 75 per cent of communication is non-verbal - holds true.
'As a viewer, you are appearing in my living room and I've got to get used to you, so don't wear, be or do anything that is potentially distracting,' says Harvey.
Check how you are sitting. Make sure you are comfortable but sat upright, and lean forward. Rest your hands on any desk you are sitting near. Be relaxed but alert. Look as though you are interested. Avoid clasping your hands together because if you are particularly nervous, the audience will be able to see your knuckles go white as the interview goes on.
Your eyes will betray how comfortable you feel. Maintain good, steady eye contact with the interviewer; it looks like you are committed to the message.
If you look to the side you can look anxious and unconvincing.
If you are doing a down-the-line interview, keep looking at the camera.
In practical terms, men should make sure their tie is straight and women should avoid heavy jewellery.
'You don't have to dress in a dull or boring way, but don't wear loud patterns. Also red doesn't work well because it tends to fill out the screen. I would wear a jacket because the studio will have a wire and a clip for you to wear,' says Harvey.
Unlike broadcast journalists, print journalists have more time for an interview - at least five or ten minutes compared with three minutes on air. Crucially, they also have more time for research and phoning around for comment.
Harvey says this is both a blessing and a curse: 'You have time to make your point to a rookie journalist repeatedly if need be. But print interviews can be more dangerous territory. For example, during a face-to-face interview, a print journalist will start interviewing the person from the minute they walk through the door. They don't need audio or video, they just need information.'
He also advises not letting your guard down with trade or b2b media. 'National journalists always read the trade press, and an ambitious b2b journalist can make a name for themselves by selling in stories elsewhere. Don't say anything to any journalist that you wouldn't want to see in the Daily Mail,' he says.
Bird advises those being interviewed to keep their guard up. 'Watch out for the random questioning technique. The journalist may go all over the place prodding the interviewee, trying to find a weak spot, but when the story is written up there is a logical flow to it.
'Print journalists create balance so expect some negative points in a print article. We are not going to give you a free ride. Don't be afraid to repeat the same answer and make sure you are 100 per cent on-message,' she says.
HOW I FOUND IT
Cathy Bussey, Deputy editor, PRWeek
Having been a journalist for eight years, it was tempting to assume that I would learn nothing from the media training session, but I was pleasantly surprised at how engaging and illuminating it was.
The differences between print interviews and broadcast interviews - although blindingly obvious when you think about it - were interesting when explained. And I had never heard of 'bridging' or understood how broadcast interviews in particular can be manipulated by the interviewee. Once Andrew explained this I realised we hear this technique from politicians all the time. The opening gambit from the interviewer is usually quite loose and this allows the interviewee a golden opportunity to say: 'Well, the really interesting part is ...' and then segway into getting key messages across.
It is human nature to sit back and wait for the interviewer to set the agenda and ask the questions, but by challenging this it is easy to see why broadcast slots in particular are pure gold for PR purposes.
Kate Magee, Associate editor, features, PRWeek
Two journalists attending a media training session sounds like a strange idea. But the opportunity to review our performances in different media channels with experienced trainers was really valuable.
The TV camera may have felt like the most intimidating device in the room, but the most dangerous was the unassuming dictaphone. Ann had time to dig around, so the print article was much more negative that the radio or TV interviews.
My advice to PR professionals is not to be afraid of broadcast interviews. They can provide a great opportunity to convey messages to an audience in your own words. Anticipating tricky questions and being secure in your knowledge and position on an issue is crucial. Finally, have the confidence to take charge of an interview, rather than passively responding. The underprepared journalist might just thank you.