How to Prepare for a Media Interview
Gina Rubel Interviewed by John Corcoran
In this episode of On Record PR, we flip the script and go on record with host Gina Rubel to discuss how to prepare for a media interview.
This interview was recorded during the coronavirus pandemic while we were working from home, meeting via Zoom, and trying to navigate the new normal.
In this episode, we’re talking about a crucial issue: How to prepare for a media interview. If you’re an attorney or an executive, and you suddenly have an interview thrust upon you with no time to prepare, this session is going to be your cheat sheet. It’s your answer to everything you need to know quickly. Gina, we were talking beforehand about how the court of public relations is different from the court of law, and there’s an art to working with the media, especially if you are a lawyer in a big trial, or you’re an executive, and you have a trial that you’re involved in and there are issues around how you communicate, how your client communicates, and how you get your message out.
What are some of the first steps in preparing for an interview if you’re on a strict deadline?
Before you face the interview, you should go through what we call the four P’s, which is 1) preparation, 2) practice, 3) planning and 4) performance. If you get media trained in advance, you shouldn’t have to find yourself in that “aha” moment because the court of public opinion is much different than the court of law. As lawyers, we’re used to preparing for cross examination, and we’re used to preparing our clients for cross examination. Most trial lawyers think they know how to deal with the media when it comes to trial publicity, but they’ve never been media trained.
Step One: Preparation
The first thing is preparation. Learning how to speak with the media in sound bites, knowing what the media outlet is looking for, and knowing if this is going to be an adversarial interview versus a fan-friendly interview. As a young lawyer in my twenties, I was asked to represent the Philadelphia Bar Association and the Young Lawyers Executive Committee, and I was asked to do a media interview with a lobbyist in DC. It was during a very hot political climate. I had never been media trained. I thought I knew everything. I got something handed to me on a silver platter, and I learned a very quick lesson. I am grateful to the universe that there was no such thing as social media, and that there are no recordings of it because I never want to see it again.
When you’re talking about preparation, it’s not about your subject matter expertise. It’s about preparation for how to communicate in the media interview, whether it’s an adversarial or fan- friendly interview, and whether it’s for TV, radio or print. Correct?
They’re all different. For example, when you’re working with a print publication, there are ways to communicate to make sure that your message was heard, and that it’s not going to be changed. If it is changed, then you have something to go back and speak to the media about and say, “Well, that’s not exactly what I meant,” if it needs clarification. I want to make the assumption that if you are speaking to the media, that you are prepared on the subject matter because if you’re not, then foundational is required. It’s really understanding: Who are you talking to? What are the elements of the media outlet?
Just like you’re interviewing me. This is a media interview. I had to prepare to make sure that I knew what I wanted to talk about and was well versed on the topic. Of course, I wrote a book on it, but I actually went back and read the chapter to make sure that I remembered, “Oh yeah. I’ve used that example before.”
John Corcoran: That’s a great point because the pressure is on. If you’re doing a TV interview, podcast interview, or anything where you have one chance to make it work, you might need to go back and refresh your memory even if you wrote a book on it. If you say there’s four points to a subject, and you’ve forgotten the fourth, that can be a problem.
Gina Rubel: Know your key messages. What are the key points you need to get across? Say them in sound bites, research the reporter, know what they talk about, know the types of questions they ask, and know if they have any potential biases. Anticipate the key questions the same way you would if you were to get a cross examination. That’s the preparation phase of training for media interviews.
It’s baffling because sometimes you see political candidates get handed a question that a lot of people were thinking, and they dropped the ball on it. You see it and you think, “How could they not be prepared to answer this foundational question?”
We are used to communicating in many different places, and we’re getting messages coming from 50 different directions, that often times we just go to the next thing. As lawyers, we’re really good at winging it. Many of us in law school were told, “If you get called in to the court on a day’s notice, you’re going to have to wing it.” We have to flip that on its head because we have a job to do when we speak to the media.
The first thing is to identify: What is the objective? What are we trying to get across? That’s the key message point.
Step Two: Practice
Before I spoke to you today, I sat down with a colleague, and I worked on eye contact. I worked on making sure that my voice sounded pleasant, making sure that my tone was good, and making sure I’ve had a little bit of honey to coat my throat and keep my voice from being raspy. I was also making sure that I knew not only what I’m going to talk about, but that I’m going to do a good job talking about it.
If this were a media interview, and they took a sound bite out of the entire discussion, it’s important that I got the key message across. You have to practice that. Sound bites are not easy. As lawyers, we go to law school, and we learn how to write legal briefs. What legal briefs are not is brief. There’s no sound bite in there. There’s subheadings, so you’re actually speaking in subheadings. The other thing I like to do in media training is talk to lawyers using our language, and get them to understand that a media interview is more like cross examination if it’s adversarial, or a sound bite is more like the heading in a brief. It’s not all the background information.
Step Three: Planning
With planning, the first thing is to understand that a media interview is not just about you. This is about your law firm, and potentially your client, so we need to leave the ego at home. We need to understand: What is the outlet? Is this a legal publication or a national trade publication? Am I going on “Good Morning America?” Who is the audience? What do they need to hear? How do I build in the message about the firm without being contrived or salesy?
We have to remember that everything we do is about reputation management and business development, client retention and acquisition. As the CEO of Furia Rubel Communications, one of the things we do is media training and trial publicity, and we’re helping to teach our clients how to plan. We’re teaching them to test their headset if they’re doing a podcast, we’re teaching them to make sure the video is clear, if they’re using a video platform. If they’re using a laptop, we also tell them to test how they’re looking at the laptop camera. Often times, we will do live videos with breaking news, and somebody will be looking down at the camera and you’ll have their nose.
John Corcoran: There was a viral video of a man in England who was doing an interview, and then his wife and kid came in the middle of the interview with the BBC. It was hilarious, but you want to avoid stuff like that by planning in advance.
Gina Rubel: You’re planning and testing. It’s remembering: If we were videotaping, what do people see behind you? For lawyers, do you have anything that has a client’s name on it in the video that could potentially violate attorney client privilege? You have to think through the planning phase to make sure that the message is delivered well.
John Corcoran: Our offices have become more like TV studios now with tools like Zoom and Skype. People are increasingly doing interviews over video that previously would be done in a television studio. Now, they’re being done in your office, and you could have briefs lying around or sensitive information, or your appearance isn’t appropriate.
Any additional thoughts on planning?
Gina Rubel: I’ll give an example of how you do it. When I talk to you on zoom and we have a video conference, you have the nice Rise25 logo behind you, you’re very professional, you’re put together, so that everyone who knows if we were doing a video conference that was being videotaped for broadcast, that we worked with Rise25. It’s having an understanding of every single element and how it is going to come across in the interview.
Step Four: Performance
John Corcoran: If you’ve prepared, practiced, and planned well, are you going to perform well?
Gina Rubel: Maybe. Early on, I would get very nervous in front of a camera. Even in that planning and preparation phase, videotape yourself if you’re going to do video interviews. Audio tape yourself and listen to your volume. Understand that sometimes you need to slow down, and you need to speak differently. If I’m doing a video interview and I’m in middle America, I may be speaking at a much slower cadence than I am when I’m in New York City. I’m going to be speaking faster and more quickly because the person who’s interviewing me is interviewing me at a quicker pace. Obviously, I’m demonstrating some of the things that you need to know about performance. Another thing is knowing how to use silence.
However, when you’re in an adversarial interview, the media might be throwing questions at you, and you answer and don’t stop. You need to stop. Silence is a good thing. It causes them to have to ask the next question, as opposed to you giving up too much information. There’s so many tricks. We’ve just touched the surface of the four P’s: Preparation, practice, planning and performance. These are just some of the key tips that I discuss in my book, “Everyday Public Relations for Lawyers,” so that professionals and lawyers know how to better prepare and harness working with the media.
How hard is it to get people to follow each of these pieces if they have a big interview coming up, even if they’re a big executive, a big law firm managing partner, litigator, etc.? How do you motivate people to take it seriously and realize the consequences of a poor media interview?
Show them an example of somebody else who failed. Ask them, “What do you think of this person now? What did the other firm do? What are they doing? How did they do it?” Show them something that was done poorly by someone that they may respect, and they’ll realize that we all should be following the four P’s.
To answer the first part of your question about how to motivate them, it comes from firm culture and from management, and it comes from being respectful. My job is really to help them be successful and to not belittle anyone. Those of us who are lawyers all went to law school. It’s not my job to belittle them or say, “You need to understand.” They do understand, but let’s find strategies and methods that will help you look good, help you meet your objectives, and help you represent your firm in such a way that it’s going to help you meet those objectives.
Whether it’s some associates making partner or some partner joining the executive committee. For others, it may be growing their business. Show them what’s in it for them and why it’s important. For the law firms where we have done media training, we’ve had great success. The lawyers are appreciative because when you show them things that they don’t know, and you give them those “aha” moments, the key to that is giving them data. Lawyers are taught how to argue everything based in fact under law. If you give them the data, then they understand it better, and they can embrace it much more easily.
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