A quick Google search for ‘media gaffes’ yields a wealth of content. Everyone from Joe Biden to Mike Coupe, CEO of Sainsbury's, has messed up on air.
The examples available online pertain to politicians and celebrities – those in the public eye whose mistakes are given eternal life, if not by the history books, then by the modern equivalent: viral YouTube clips.
Luckily, the media engagements of these high-profile interviewees are likely to bear little resemblance to the B2B media campaign that you, as a commercial company representative, are conducting with your PR team.
Nevertheless – and while small slip-ups are both inevitable and often harmless – making a big mistake in a media interview can have significant consequences, both for the reputation of your company, and for your personal relationship with the journalist.
If you’re looking for a quick way to avoid the major errors, just watch a compilation video or two on YouTube (‘worst TV interviews ever’, that sort of thing) and then do the exact opposite of the interviewees featured in the videos.
But to really cover all your bases, read on.
Most common mistakes made in media interviews and how to avoid them
1. Going ‘on the sell’
Journalists often have to deal with interviewees slipping into marketing mode, boasting about their company and trying to ‘sell’ their products and services.
As a PR agency, we often receive warnings to this effect from the journalist, in advance of an interview with our clients. And with good reason.
Too many interviewees confuse an interview opportunity with free advertising. The result: the journalist becomes disengaged, your relationship with them is damaged, and they are unlikely to write up the interview, or to come to you in the future for comment.
Instead of focusing on your company – great though I’m sure it is – put yourself in the journalist’s shoes and think about what they are likely to be interested in (hint: it’s not your shiny new line of products). More often than not, your company is only interesting in so far as your comments about it offer insight into wider market trends.
Regard an interview as an opportunity to help, advise, and support your clients and the wider market, by sharing your expertise and insights. Rather than shouting about yourself, the ability to offer insightful comment not only raises your profile, but also gains you respect among your peers, clients, and prospects.
2. Not answering the question
Politicians are the real experts here. The cat and mouse of watching interviewer try to tease out a straight answer from politician can be a joy to behold! If you’re UK-based, you’re probably familiar with this beauty from Jeremy Paxman!
But these are extreme examples and business interviews tend to be conducted with less theatre.
However, failing to answer questions well during an interview – whether deliberately or not – will both alienate you from the journalist, and lower your chances of the interview being published.
If you can’t, or don’t want to, answer a question, just say so. Give a reason if possible – does the question ask for sensitive information, does it stray into territory that your organisation is not best placed to comment on, or do you just not know the answer? In most cases, the journalist will respect and appreciate your honesty, and the interview will be able to move forward productively and pleasantly. (In the unlikely event that you come across an unsympathetic journalist who continues to push you for an answer, be polite but stick to your guns, and don’t be forced to answer a question you don’t want to answer).
On the other hand, if you are able and willing to provide an answer, make sure your answer is a good one. How? Structure your thoughts clearly – don’t get side-tracked or lose focus – and be sure to refer back to the question being asked.
3. Making your answers too complicated
One of the fastest ways to alienate a journalist – or indeed any audience – is failing to acknowledge their unique position, knowledge base and interests, when talking to them.
In interviews between a specialist company spokesperson – such as yourself – and a journalist, this often takes the form of answers being too complicated. You may be an expert in your field, but the journalist and their audience are unlikely to be.
Crucially, avoid industry-specific jargon, unless you can then explain what it means in lay terms. Time and again, we’ve seen excessive jargon become an obstacle to delivery of key messages – with a corresponding impact on the usefulness of the coverage.
4. Making your answers too simple
It goes without saying that the same applies in reverse: if you over-simplify the intricacies of a service, or skim too superficially over a complex market issue, you risk patronising your audience.
You are being interviewed because you can offer specialist insight. Don’t be afraid to do so, or to give technical answers. Just be sure to make your points accessible to a non-expert audience.
5. Misjudging answer length
A simple one, this. Judge and adapt the length of your answer to the nature of the question being asked. While a basic question can be answered in a sentence or two, others will require your answer to take the interviewer on a short journey.
Some journalists like to use awkward pauses as a way to nudge interviewees to keep talking long after they’ve said everything they want to say – particularly when asking a difficult or sensitive question. Don’t let this happen to you – match the length and complexity of your answer to the requirements of the question, say your piece, then stop talking.
If the question does require a long, in-depth or multifaceted answer, structuring your thoughts clearly can be a tremendous help – both to you, and to the journalist. Taking a moment to think through how many different points you’d like to get across, before delivering them in a nice, ordered list, will make all the difference.
6. Speculating or guessing
It should go without saying that, if you don’t know the answer to a question, you shouldn’t try to answer it. Much better to say so – and offer to source and share the information after the interview. Guesswork, however well intended, helps neither you nor the journalist you’re talking to.
7. Going ‘off the record’
To put it bluntly, there is no such thing as ‘off the record’. During media interviews, you should regard everything you say to a journalist as fair game. If you don’t want something to be printed or broadcast, don’t say it – it’s as simple as that.
This is particularly important when dealing with sensitive internal company information or knowledge that has not yet been made public – such as an upcoming merger or acquisition. Make sure that any sensitive information has ‘green light’ from all involved before mentioning it. If during the interview you sense the journalist would benefit from access to more privileged information, talk to your PR team after the interview. They may spot an opportunity to share further information ‘under embargo’, or as the basis for a future ‘exclusive’ on an as-yet undetermined timeframe.
And there you have it. The seven most common mistakes made in media interviews.
Naturally, most of these mistakes aren’t the end of the world – and a few slip-ups are inevitable, even from the most seasoned interviewees.
However, avoiding these pitfalls will help you avoid the worst and pursue the best from your interviews. If you’ve taken that on board, it’s time to engage with the media and put it into practice.