Lately I’ve been explaining my career to confused relatives and Lyft drivers like this: You know in movies when a person is being interviewed by a journalist and someone will jump in exclaiming, “My client doesn’t have to answer that” or “We have no further comment” or “This interview is over”? That’s me!
Okay, look. That technically is true, but any PR professional knows that hosting interviews rarely goes that way. Thank heavens!
Even so, hosting interviews is an essential function in public relations, and it can be nerve-racking. Doing it with grace is a significant hurdle for PR professionals looking to take the next step in their careers.
Although no one can anticipate everything that might happen in a media interview with a client, the following tips should serve as a helpful guide on the PR pro’s role as interview host, including how best to prepare.
Understand competing priorities
Everyone will enter the conversation wanting something different—and it’s your job to help deliver it all.
As a host, understanding everyone’s priorities sets the stage for a satisfying interaction. It may be something as simple as a spokesperson having a hard stop time due to another commitment. That means it will be up to you to watch the clock and jump in at the end to make sure the interview wraps on time—while graciously offering to follow up with the journalist on anything that might have been missed. More on that later!
There might be a relevant whitepaper or case study your client really wants to get in front of the journalist, and it’ll be your job to make that happen. But don’t neglect the reporter’s priorities, either. Ultimately, if they don’t get what they’re looking for from the interview, they likely aren’t going to cover your client.
Take the time to research their previous coverage and ask if there are specifics they want to discuss during the meeting. Empathize.
For example, a reporter from a science journal is likely going to be seeking technical particulars and figures, so you should try to connect them with a spokesperson who can speak to that level of detail — and send them that whitepaper your client loves, too.
By anticipating what each individual wants from the interview, you can better prepare yourself to be helpful and guide a conversation that fairly addresses everyone’s priorities.
Do your homework (and bring it with you)
This should be obvious, but I can’t emphasize it enough: Have everything prepared and right in front of you for the interview.
“Everything” might include the original pitch to the journalist, the speaking points you prepared for your client, the reporter’s Twitter or Muck Rack page listing their latest work, their relevant articles, your spokesperson’s title and name (and it’s pronunciation!), the dial-in information if it’s a phone/video call or everyone’s contact information if you’re meeting in person, a backup dial-in option if there are connectivity issues, a recording device, a notepad and pen…look, if I’m extra nervous before hosting an interview, I’ll even write down my own name and title just so I don’t forget it.
The point to all this preparation is that you won’t have to waste any time scrambling during those precious few minutes with a journalist’s full attention. The only thing you should be focused on during that time is listening and taking notes.
Respect the reporter
It’s easy to get so caught up in taking care of your client that you forget an interview is a two-way conversation. Like I said, the journalist ultimately controls whether you get that sweet, sweet coverage you’re hoping for, so show them a little respect! Your clients and spokespeople may not know the basics of working with media, but PR professionals have no excuse.
Take heed of these sacred rules:
- Don’t ask for the reporter’s questions in advance
No respectable journalist ever shares their questions ahead of an interview, and it’s insulting to ask. Inquire about general topics they want to discuss, ask if there’s any advance material you can provide (whitepapers, product specifications, biographical information, etc.), and leave it at that.
- Don’t ask to see an article before it’s published
Once the interview is over, it is out of your hands — you have no control over what the journalist will write. If there are factual errors in the resulting published piece, you can reach out and request corrections.
- Don’t interrupt unless you absolutely have to
Frankly, no one is in that interview to hear from you. Try your best to be a silent witness, and only jump in when it’s really necessary (like a non-disclosure agreement is about to be broken or the client has another interview scheduled in five minutes). Extra details can be supplied via email with the journalist after the meeting if necessary, you don’t need to interject them during the conversation. Preserve the precious one-on-one time between the reporter and your client.
The follow up
Arguably the most vital part of your role in hosting an interview happens after the conversation has ended. This is your opportunity to tie everything together and make sure everyone goes home happy by bringing the priorities back into focus.
First lay the groundwork by mentioning at the end of the interview that you will follow up with the journalist via email to share any materials that might have come up during the conversation. For example, if a spokesperson mentions a recent announcement during the interview, you should make sure you send that press release along to the reporter afterwards. In that email, you should also take the opportunity to share anything that might not have come up during the interview, like the big announcement your spokesperson should have mentioned or that whitepaper your client really wants to share.
This email will also be your chance to clarify or elaborate on anything your client said on the call. A good spokesperson knows to answer the trickiest questions with something along the lines of, “let me get back to you on that.” The follow up is where that happens.
Without diminishing the drama of those movie scenes where the PR pro calls the shots, these tips should demystify the real-world duties in hosting interviews. The job may not often play out like it does on the big screen but nurturing a connection between client and journalist is an art in its own right.
As with all things, practice makes perfect in becoming a hosting pro — over the course of your career you will get plenty of it and it won’t always be glamorous.
In the meantime, we won’t tell if you exaggerate a little to your next Lyft driver.
— A version of this article was recently published on Muck Rack.
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