After last week’s discussion about online design magazines and women in the media I came away with a familiar feeling in my stomach. It was the same worry and concern that inspired me to start the in-person Biz Ladies series that I did back in 2008. I’ve always known that I wouldn’t be able to help everyone I wanted to all by myself, but that if I worked hard enough I could try to connect those that do have valuable information to offer with those that need it most. After our discussion about women taking more control over the way they’re portrayed in the media I heard from Amber Lester Kennedy, a journalist living in Virginia. We were both eager to share the advice and information we’d learned over the years being on both sides of the media equation. So today we’re joining forces to share a sort of mini media training primer that will hopefully be helpful to anyone (Biz Ladies and Men) looking to be more prepared when heading into an interview situation.
Amber has worked as a feature writer, copy editor, page designer, and government and education reporter. She’s also the child of an editor, married to a copy editor and the daughter-in-law of two recently retired journalists. She writes a blog called Newly Domesticated and today will be speaking from the perspective of the interviewer/journalist. I’ll be adding in my thoughts as a blogger case study. I’ve made a wide range of mistakes speaking with the press, but have eventually grown more confident taking control of the things I say, how I say them and finding a way to still feel comfortable and like myself during interviews.
I hope you’ll join us after the jump for some great advice, tips and do’s/don’t that will help you feel more confident and in control when you sit down to discuss your business with the press.
Congratulations! A reporter wants to talk to you for a story, which means your business is getting noticed. But if you’ve never talked to a reporter, you might feel anxious; most of the public assumes reporters are all using secret recording devices or hoping to catch you in a lie. We are not all like that . . . in fact, I’ve only known a few real-life journalists who seemed prone to writing tabloid-style articles. Here are some tips for how to navigate the interview process and come out with the kind of coverage you want to share with friends and family. -Amber
Preparing for the Interview
A good journalist will always complete a cursory Google search of your name before an interview, and you should consider returning the favor. When a reporter requests an interview, take the time to go read his or her recent stories. Get a feel for the journalist’s writing style, how she’s has portrayed others in the past and whether her articles ever have an editorialized tone.
If she’s interviewed a friend in the past, you might ask that friend what to expect from the experience. I try to make it as painless as possible; my main goal is to find the story that exists, rather than find arguments that support a story I’ve mentally written. That isn’t true for all reporters, however, and it’s good to read their stories critically.
It’s important to note that if you want the coverage, you need to give the reporter the respect you would want to receive. Too many times, people bump “call back the reporter” to the bottom of their to-do lists, and by the time they do call back, the reporter has soured on the subject and moved on to the next story. If she’s working on a feature about custom wedding invitations and you don’t call back or email within a day, she’s already looking for a different source.
I can’t speak for all reporters, but this is what the interview process is like with me: If you can’t find time to talk by phone or in person, I will email my main questions. I will use the best quotes, and if your grammar isn’t perfect, I’ll correct it. Sometimes, I will call, while on deadline, and hope you can talk on the spot. I will explain what type of story I was hoping to write, and if you feel that my angle isn’t accurate, that would be the time to say so.
If you are willing to talk immediately, we’ll have a quick chat. If my story is about local designers who work with couples to create custom invites, I’ll ask you how you got into design and what influences your work. I’ll ask how you collaborate with customers, and I might ask if you have a customer who would be willing to talk with me. I might ask if you have pictures (high-res) that you could share for publication.
If you cannot talk on the spot, I’ll work with you to find a convenient time to chat by phone or in person later that day or week. Reporters are flexible, but please remember that you are not the only source they’re juggling. Also, most of them work during the day or have early deadlines and wouldn’t appreciate it if you called back at 9 p.m. Respect their time, and they’ll respect yours.
What to Say and What Not to Say
The ideal interview subject is well spoken, funny and most importantly, passionate. When I meet someone who is head-over-heels in love with his or her job, I leave interviews with flushed cheeks and an adrenaline high because I know that passion will translate to a great article. When I meet someone who seems uninterested in his or her job, painfully shy or speaks in one-word sentences, I end up looking for another source who can help give the story some legs.
I would approach it like a job interview. Think about how you want to present yourself. Think about how you explained your business to the loan officer at the bank or when you pursued a business license. Be guarded, but not unapproachable.
If you like to make jokes, make jokes, but remember that anything said in an interview is fair game UNLESS you precede the joke by saying, “Off the record.” It’s very annoying to have someone say later that they never thought their comments would go in the story; unless the reporter has agreed not to publish something, it’s considered part of the interview. Personally, I try to use my best judgment and be as fair as possible. I’m not in the business of burning newbies, but I’ve met reporters who have no qualms about it.
Do not bad-mouth anyone unless you’re ready for a he-said, she-said battle that will likely get drawn out in the comments section. If that custom-invitation printer across town uses cheap materials, that’s not your business. If a reporter asks you about them, say, “I don’t know anything about that” or feign ignorance. Don’t give the reporter any bread crumbs, like, “I would only use the best, but to each his own.”
On the flip side, if you have something nice to say, say it! We love stories of camaraderie in the business world!
Do not present yourself as anything other than what you are. Journalists wield Google like a weapon. If you say you went to design school, and we find out you took one class at the community college, we will ask you about it. If your previous business closed abruptly, we will check court files to see if you went bankrupt. Prepare for these questions the way you would in a job interview when the hiring manager asks about your weaknesses or gaps in your employment.
What If You Don’t Want to be Interviewed?
That’s okay; some people don’t. Private businesspeople are not obligated to share the way public officials must. On occasion, someone has responded in such a negative way to me that I’ve wondered why they didn’t just ignore me or say, “No comment.”
Other journalists would kill me for mentioning this, but the best way to avoid coverage is to not respond in a timely manner. If the reporter misses her deadline, she’ll give you about two-to-three more days before she calls it a loss. At the end of the day, “Could not be reached” reads better than “no comment.”
If you do want to respond but just don’t want to be interviewed, shoot the reporter an email that says, “I’m not comfortable with being interviewed, but here’s another source who could help you.”
After the Interview
Some basic rules:
- Do not ask for prior review of the story. That is never okay and will be very off-putting to the journalist. If you’re concerned about your quotes, ask her to read them back to you from her notes. If you were recorded, you just have to trust her.
- If the reporter has follow-up questions, respond as soon as possible. If you miss the reporter’s deadline, she might not be able to hold the story.
What If the Story Is Bad?
First of all, brace yourself. The reporter will strive to tell the story with the most truth, but truth is relative. Your version of events might not match someone else’s. Reading an article about yourself can sometimes feel like trying on swimsuits in a dressing room with bad lighting. You’ll see things you don’t want to admit might be true, or you might see flaws that aren’t there.
If you believe the article was truly unfair, contact the writer first, and try to stay calm. Emails written while angry often come off as irrational and nonsensical. If the writer brushes off your concerns, contact her editor.
If something is inaccurate, contact the writer first. If the story is online, you’re in luck, because she will probably correct it immediately before too much damage is done. If it’s a print edition, a correction will likely run in the following edition, but will be in a tiny font and will not restate the mistake; it will simply state what is true. For example, it won’t say, “Amber was not born in Virginia, but was born in New Jersey.” It will say, “Amber was born in New Jersey.”
A retraction is hard to come by, and any sort of published apology is rarer. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality of the business. In my experience, the people who have demanded apologies were angry about the way they were portrayed but weren’t portrayed inaccurately. However, if you really feel your reputation was damaged permanently, you can pursue an apology, and you might consider meeting with a lawyer to discuss whether you have a case for libel.
What If the Story Is Good?
Wonderful! Tell the reporter you appreciate it; we NEVER get good feedback, so when we do, it’s like getting a plate of brownies. Print the story out, or get a copy, and have it framed! A good story lends your business credibility, and can deliver business from people who never look at ads. It also preserves your little love project into perpetuity so that your investment isn’t forgotten.
Tips from A Blogger’s Perspective
Amber really nailed so many fantastic points above that I wanted to add just a few extra on to the end here from my perspective. Like most of my life, I seem to have to make all the wrong moves first to learn what the right ones are. So I hope some people can learn from my mistakes and some of the things I’ve finally learned to do right that make me more comfortable when it comes to dealing with the press these days. -Grace
Be (Overly) Prepared
Amber already touched on this, but from where I sit there’s absolutely no way to over emphasize how important it is to be prepared for any interview situation. I used to think that being prepared meant answering their questions ahead of time or thinking about the topic, but I’ve now learned that having more examples/tips/info than they could possibly use is the best way to prepare.
Reporters have the scope and theme of their articles changed at the last minute some times (by editors or other people at their publication) so they may need to call for more ideas or additional tips/info. Even if this doesn’t happen, sometimes you’ll be the last of several people to give ideas and others will have already given your great ideas because they happened to be interviewed first. So my rule of thumb is to always have twice as many tips/ideas as they need prepared. They want your top 5? Prep a list of 10. They want 10 cool products that represent a trend? Try to find 20, and…try to prep a backup trend story just in case.
Is that extra work? Definitely. But is it a waste of time? Absolutely not. Not only do you get to make a good impression by seeming like a wealth of information, but you make sure you get your voice in the article and, if your extra ideas don’t get used, you can use them as content for your blog or another outlet related to your business (Twitter, Facebook, etc).
Sidestepping Tricky Topics
Amber touched on this, too but I wanted to give some more concrete examples behind the classic “no comment” for dealing with tricky topics. We all have touchy subjects that we don’t like to discuss- maybe it’s a comment war that happened on your site, or a mistake you made in a post, or a fellow business owner you don’t want to discuss. No matter what that is, it’s best to be prepared if it DOES get mentioned. You never want to seem red-faced and caught on the spot, so I always suggest having a few different responses planned. It doesn’t need to be a formal response that sounds like it was handed down from a PR manager, but it does need to sound like a calm, balanced response to something that could be prickly.
I always like to turn something bad into a lesson learned so you can share that with readers. For example, one of the biggest issues I faced starting out was that I used to work in PR and the first press piece about D*S implied I was receiving payment for the things I wrote about. It wasn’t true and the statement was corrected, but the damage was done. So I learned really quickly to emphasize and focus on transparency with readers from the start.
So whenever that gets mentioned in an article or interview, it’s tough not to bristle and say “It wasn’t true!”. But I’ve learned to explain it by turning the situation into something positive like this, “That was an unfortunate (and inaccurate) accusation to have lobbed at me early on, but looking back I’m actually really glad it happened. It taught me to make my readers’ trust and my own transparency the core of what I do every day. That focus has given me a connection with my readers that I wouldn’t trade for anything”. Totally true and it turns a tough situation into a discussion about an aspect of my work about which I’m proud.
Strike a Pose
One of the things that’s easy to overlook when it comes to press is the way you’re shown- literally. I’ll never forget how excited (and grateful) I was to take part in a photo shoot for the first time. I did anything and everything they told me and I ended up looking like an idiot. I had way too much makeup on and I was making this goofy face because they thought it looked fun and played up how young I was at the time. I was still so appreciative for being included in the story, but I wish I’d paid more attention to what I looked like and what that was saying about me.
The basic note I took away from that was to trust my gut and politely ask for my hair/makeup/clothing to be changed if I’m not comfortable with it. The easiest way to fix this is to arrive to a shoot camera-ready. Ask ahead of time if they have requests or color themes and go with that. Prep your own outfit, take a quick photo on your own to see how it looks from the camera’s perspective and do your own makeup. They may need to touch things up, but at least you’re not starting from scratch with someone who thinks eye makeup should be applied with a spatula. (Note: TV makeup is a whole different story. They’re going to need to layer it on like crazy, but you’re still allowed to say that you prefer not to wear X,Y,Z if possible)
One other note is something I’m struggling with myself these days and trying to get better about remembering. Women often get posed slightly seductively or with an emphasis on physical beauty in shoots. I recognize it’s all about taking a nice shot, but sometimes I feel like beauty is over-emphasized rather than conveying a message of strength or confidence. This is something I miss seeing in my favorite design publications- women photographed in a way that makes them seem powerful and confident, rather than pretty and perched on a cute chair.
This will be something you have to push for sometimes, but I’ve had to suggest different styles at shoots (politely, of course) and when I do, I’m always glad I pushed for it. I don’t want anyone to walk on a set and act overly dramatic or demanding, but keep in mind the look you want to have. Do you want to see strong, confident and powerful? If so, try to find a way to say that with not just your face, but your body language and pose. Small changes (like standing tall in front of a desk rather than sitting on a couch buried in patterned pillows) can make a big difference. Obviously the publication and theme of the story needs to be taken into account, but I want to stress that you have control over how you’re portrayed physically as well as verbally, so feel free to prepare and make suggestions for this part of the story, too.
When to Walk Away
It may seem crazy, but sometimes it’s good to walk away from a press opportunity if you don’t like the theme or tone of the article. It’s often as simple as recognizing if the answers you’re going to give project the message you want your brand/business to have.
Often magazines have a story in mind and will approach you to work within that frame work. I used to think that all press was worth doing (and a lot of the time it is) but every now and then it’s good to keep in mind if you like the publication, the story line and the tips/message you’re sending. For example, I know some bloggers (myself included) get asked to contribute examples of how a given trend is awesome/popular/worth investing in. If the trend is something I am ready to move on from (antlers, birds, etc) I will politely pass, rather than join in just for the press clip. It may seem like a small thing, but supporting the message that your site/business is current, relevant and knows what’s cool at any given time can be crucial. So to come out and seem like you’re behind the times can be detrimental. Whether it’s a trend or the tone of the article you’re doubtful of, feel free to politely pass if you think it’s not the best fit for you.