The Art of the Media Interview

A general memo circulated to all staff by my boss:

  • Be absolutely clear: a media interview is a totally artificial situation and must be treated as such. The nub of it is simple: you are not there simply to answer questions for the general good of humanity, or for the specific benefit of the journalist. You are there to get your message across. As powerfully and convincingly as possible.
  • Of course, you cannot do this regardless of the questions. The art of the media interview lies in navigating a path from the interviewer’s question to your answer in the subtlest way possible. There is plenty of scope for doing this effectively. You needn’t sound like a barefaced politician.
  • To be successful, you must understand the journalist’s agenda. This will never entirely coincide with yours, but the greater the overlap you can create the greater your chance of success. Equally, no overlap means no quote. Understand the journalist’s agenda and use that to your advantage.
  • Be clear about this, too: a journalist’s job is not to report what you say. Nor even necessarily to listen to what you say. At least, not in the way normal human beings do. It is to fill blank page space, or blank airtime, with stories of interest to a specific audience. What you say may or may not help the journalist do that.
  • Your task is therefore simply stated: package what you have to say in a way that helps the journalist. Do the journalists’ job for them. Fail in that and don’t complain if you are misquoted. Or not quoted at all.
  • In other words, take the initiative. You are within your rights to be seeking to set the agenda. In fact, that is what you should be doing.

The Golden Rules of Media Interviews

  1. It is a performance, not a conversation.
  2. Successful media interviewing is 95% preparation, 5% improvisation.
  3. If you don’t know exactly what your objectives are for the interview, you shouldn’t be doing it at all.
  4. It’s up to you to make yourself quotable and quoted.
  5. It’s your job to set the limits to the interview, not the reporter’s.
  6. Interviews are impressionistic, not exhaustive.
  7. Reverse the normal order: give your conclusion up front – then your reasons.
  8. Never wait for the right question – which may never come.
  9. The art of interviewing lies in getting from reporter’s question to your main message as effectively and subtly as possible. But it is an art.

To which my boss adds, in a covering note:

The only rule omitted is never say anything (even specifying that it is ‘off the record’) which you don’t want to see in print or hear on air: the exception to this, and indeed for most of the other rules mentioned, is if you are talking to someone you know, from long past experience, with many tests to prove it, that you can trust absolutely and for ever both to get it right and not embarrass you. And without being unnecessarily rude about professional journalists, how many people do any of us know in that category?

I have to say that this is pretty much how I personally approach interviews, at least on a good day. Do any journalists reading think this is a fair/unfair approach?

(Edited to add: entry friends-locked, not because it is particularly sensitive, but because I expect the media guidelines are copyright.)

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