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Seven secrets for dealing with press interviews

We’ve been conducting interviews for an alarmingly long time and the last 25 years of have been largely devoted to talking with state, county and city officials. Based exclusively on personal experience, we’ve developed a solid sense of the things that our interviewees can do that will optimize their chances of communicating their message well.

Edward R. Murrow

Important note: We’re not talking about a lot of the things you might hear in media training; like how to pivot from the question asked to the one you want to answer. Speaking for ourselves, when someone is pivoting away from our questions, we’ll just ask the question again and again and again, and finally we’ll just go to another source. That’s not what the original  source really wants, because  he or she loses all control over the information being communicated. We’re not saying that pivoting is never  effective in interviews — particularly on television or radio, where there’s a limited amount of time to probe. We’re just saying that it can alienate well-trained reporters.

Some of the following may seem manipulative. That’s because some of the following is manipulative. But much of it is really obvious — though frequently ignored.

  1. Take five or ten minutes, before the interview, to find out a little about the interviewer and the publication for which he or she is writing. This can be crucial if it turns out that you’re talking to someone with a strong political bias.

  2. Be very careful about the meaning of “off the record,” or “on background,” or “not for attribution.” People bandy these phrases around as though they are universally understood. But they’re not. If you want to make ground rules for the conversation, be explicit, like “I do not want to see my name attached to any of the quotes, but you can feel free to attribute them to a ‘California budget analyst,” or whatever.

  3. A corollary to number 2: Make any ground rules explicit at the beginning of interviews. Journalists will assume they have the right to attribute any quotes directly to you, unless they’re told otherwise. The reporter should probably clarify this from the beginning. But if that’s not the case, you should make sure it happens.

  4. At least once in the conversation compliment the press representative as in, “That was a terrific question.” People like to be praised. Just don’t shower the reporter with kind words, or it will seem less genuine.

  5. Don’t make any assumptions about the knowledge-level of the reporter, and assume you can put something over on him because he seems to know nothing. Smart interviewers don’t show how much they already know, preferring to draw out the interviewee to provide more details.

  6. Use stories in interviews. Real, live stories. Most articles are going to call out for anecdotes, and if you provide them yourself, it’ll help to get your points into the final article.

  7. If you don’t know something, say you don’t know it. And if you use numbers or dates that are really just guesses, tell the journalist to double check on them. Or double check yourself and get back by phone or e-mail. It makes us crazy when we fact-check a piece we’ve written and discover that the source has given us some data that turns out to be just distant memories of data. It makes us wonder if anything we’ve gotten from that particular source is reliable.

We hope this helps. And we’d really like it if those of you who are reading this would make any additions to the list as a comment on this website.


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