Residential Magazine

Take Charge of the Media Interview

Tell great stories when your credibility and brand reputation is at risk

By Tom Gable

Media coverage can have a significant impact for building the image, awareness and understanding of a company — as well as its people, policies, practices, record and reputation — because of the numbers of people reached, the quality of the audience and the credibility of the sources. Outside validation gives your company’s different target audiences comfort and confidence in forming opinions, changing perceptions or making decisions.

Dealing with the media, however, isn’t a natural act. Mortgage professionals, in particular, typically have had little or no experience with media interviews. They don’t understand how media members operate or their motivations.
Mortgage originators may be asked to share their opinions about the mortgage and housing markets with local media or trade publications, a finance-related radio show or a live interview on television. As they advance in their careers, these mortgage professionals may become executives who may be asked prickly questions about how their company handled a situation.
Whether it’s local, regional or national news media, trade publications, or social media and podcast interviews, mortgage professionals often jump in woefully unprepared. Many haven’t tried or even considered going through media training. Unlike how they approach their businesses, they haven’t done proper research and considered key messages, risks and challenges. How should they tell their stories?

Considerable downside

The downside is significant. Instead of building a positive image and reputation for the long term using great facts and compelling stories, the company and its spokesman can appear to be ordinary, undistinguished, unorganized, lacking strategy and lacking vision. In crisis-oriented public relations, guilty and sleazy are the frequent takeaways.
Simply existing isn’t enough. What’s different about your company? What’s the bigger story that goes outside the walls to impact the city, county, state, country and world?

Help the journalist to better do their job by being prepared and providing good quotes and data. Be comfortable showing your sense of humor.

Some executives think they are so good that they don’t need to prepare, which produces disastrous results. This can mean big damage to the company’s image and the credibility of its CEO.
Media relations is a disciplined, fact-based process. Public relations professionals pursue strong, positive opportunities. They educate reporters in advance of any interview, then brief the source before they come face to face with the reporter or editor. PR pros usually participate in the interviews to ensure the subject doesn’t get off track, and to see if the reporter needs more information, to have a misperception corrected or any other kind of help.

Interview goals

PR agencies and internal staff pitch specific angles and provide a set of sample questions to the media in advance with the hope of getting the major topics covered. Unfortunately, the media can be a bit random. With print media, inexperienced reporters are sometimes assigned to cover a complex story. Television and radio reporters are often generalists who may be encountering a subject for the first time when handed the assignment.
For nontrade interviews or when the regular reporter covering the industry isn’t available, the reporter who shows up may be ill prepared. Sometimes reporters don’t review background information before going live, simply read from a few notes or even make things up as they go along during a live segment.
Whatever the encounter, your goal during an interview is to reach the audience with your story by leading or controlling the interview as much as possible. Whether the audience is the publication’s readers, a family watching television at home, regulators, clients, stockholders, a specialized industry group or other media, develop your messages in a style that is appropriate and interesting — and deliver them in a human voice.
This requires some analysis of the medium, the journalist and the potential audience in advance of the interview. Brainstorm your goals for the interview, which may be tied to a positive feature story on the company, an executive profile or a thought-leadership piece. You also may be launching a new product, making an acquisition or an important new hire, or responding to a negative issue by changing perceptions, minimizing damage and redirecting the inquiry.

Perfect headline

One tool is to ask yourself to envision the perfect headline for the story. What will it take to achieve the headline? What is your bigger picture and vision, and what are the three supporting pillars to bring this picture to life?
For example, a regional lender may want to become the market leader in serving communities of color. Its three pillars could be people, products and technology. Evidence to support each pillar could include the fact that the company is working with local schools and organizations to hire and train people from underserved groups; that the company is creating new pilot programs to address the specific needs of each group; and that the company is investing in technology, systems and third-party services to speed up the lending process. When the interviewer goes off track, it’s easy for the subject to transition to a main pillar and redirect the discussion.
Convene a session with your internal teams and, if possible, retain outside experts in media training and media relations. Outside counsel (who are often former journalists) can ask the tough questions that internal staff may find difficult or politically disastrous to throw at an executive. In crisis PR, for example, the Q&A session from the outside team could get into predatory pricing, discriminatory lending practices, bait-and-switch tactics, technology failures and other controversial areas an investigative reporter might pursue. With this team in place, launch your action plan with these steps:
  • Evaluate the situation (from planned to ambush journalism; friendly to hostile).
  • Analyze the medium and its audience.
  • Develop communications objectives.
  • Compile a briefing book with facts, data and references.
  • Determine the message track.
  • Anticipate questions and develop appropriate transitions.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
You have core messages and values to communicate — a position and clear points. Bringing your issues to life requires becoming somewhat of a storyteller and putting the facts into a context your audience can understand. By rehearsing, you will be prepared to drop in seemingly extemporaneous anecdotes and comments to advance your story.
One recommended step is to have an on-camera dress rehearsal, whether the interview is for broadcast or not. Running through easier questions and then throwing in a few negative surprises can jolt the subject off track. Reviewing this session will help to identify the best messages and delivery paths while also showing where things fell apart due to pregnant pauses, “ums” and “ahs,” and unclear answers. The second take is always better, as is the third and so forth.

Final keys

There is no one perfect way to handle any media interview. If you are prepared and have rehearsed with your staff, a public relations agency or media training specialists, you can adapt the answers and approaches to different media channels.
Think about your desired outcome. What do you hope to get out of the interview? How do you want to be perceived? What would be the perfect sound bite on TV or the ideal headline in the print media? Listen well and take the initiative. Focus on direct, positive responses. Don’t get trapped into negative discussions about the industry, your competitors or other media coverage. Stick to the big issues. If the interview gets on the wrong tangent, use your message track to redirect back to the major themes.
Have supporting evidence for your core messages (for example, a claim of leadership in anything requires the support of third-party validation). Use facts and statistics to reinforce your position. Be sure to identify these sources by name. Cite outside experts as objective testimony or evidence lends credibility to your position.
Be personal, natural and conversational. Don’t treat an interview like a legal inquisition in a court of law. Have good, short anecdotes ready to bring positive stories to life. Help the journalist to better do their job by being prepared and providing good quotes and data. Be comfortable showing your sense of humor.
Don’t be embarrassed to answer a question with “I don’t know” or “I don’t have that data for you now, but I can get it later today and will get back to you.” Don’t fake it. Avoid discussions that are outside your area of expertise. Point the interviewer to better sources. Turn negatives to positives, avoid jargon, keep the ultimate audience in mind, and don’t lecture or be pedantic.
Be enthusiastic about what you are doing as an individual, company, organization or institution. Enthusiasm is contagious, but avoid hyperbole and the appearance of being a hard-core salesman. Never go off the record. Reporters take good notes. Any off-the-record information might not appear at this time, but everything of potential value goes into their databases and memory banks, so it could resurface.
Give a brief closing statement to reiterate your position and key values. Thank the person for their time. Immediately debrief with your agency or staff to prepare for the next interview. And celebrate success when a positive story runs. ●


  • Tom Gable

    Tom Gable is vice chair at Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, San Diego’s oldest public relations firm that merged with his firm, Gable PR, in 2015. Over the years, Gable has represented a range of clients throughout the U.S., including real estate and development companies, technology startups and Fortune 100 companies. Prior to starting Gable PR in 1976, he was business editor of the San Diego Evening Tribune and a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

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