Have you ever received a call from a reporter looking for a career development professional? Such calls could be triggered by a number of different events. If you advertise your services or events such as career or job fairs, reporters may follow up. If the economy is in a downturn, with major employers eliminating jobs and millions of people re-thinking their career futures, reporters may come to you as an expert source of comment and analysis. If the economy is expanding and people are exploring new work options, reporters may seek observations about the resulting trends. If your organization issues a press release, you should be prepared to field any inquiries that result.
When a reporter calls:
Make that conversation your highest priority. Media coverage is an opportunity to reach the people with whom you want to communicate (your clients, your prospective clients, your staff, your board, your managers, your executives, the public) in a manner that would cost thousands of dollars, if you tried to buy it.
Facilitate the reporter’s efforts to do the story: be accessible, be responsive, be ready to supply solid supporting material. There is never any shortage of ideas or potential interview subjects, and unless you are one of the most significant news stories of the day, reporters won’t invest unreasonable amounts of effort in trying to contact you. Respond to voice mails or emails as quickly as you possibly can. Provide any data or background material required, and be as specific as possible; it is not sufficient just to direct reporters to your website.
Control the timing, the nature, the length, and the setting for the interview, if possible. At times the reporter will have a very particular request and in that situation, it is best to simply grant it, rather than attempt to negotiate other circumstances. If, however, the reporter asks when you are available or where you’d like to do the interview, seize the opening and arrange the details to your advantage and your preference.
Move from Preparation mode into Focus mode. Preparation involves ongoing, constant training and development, during which you are adding to your repertoire of interview and other media skills in a consistent, systematic way. When a specific media request or campaign arises, you then focus on the specifics of that circumstance, using analysis, planning, practice and coaching techniques to hone the key message you need to transmit and to set achievable, strategic goals for the interview. You should never just “see how it goes”; you can be sure that the reporter is getting ready for that interview with very specific goals and objectives; if you don’t do the same, you are missing a golden opportunity to communicate your own or your organization’s message. You should never just “wing it”; you improve the odds of achieving your goals and extracting maximum benefit from the invitation if you have taken the time to think about your words carefully ahead of time.
Research the reporter and the outlet. Pull together as much information as possible that can help you to understand this particular reporter’s point of view and purpose. Over time, you should build up a database of reporters, noting their interests, their experience, your interactions with them, and any changes in their contact information.
Anticipate questions and draft answers. Use the information you have gathered about the reporter, the outlet, the purpose of the interview, its length, expected tone, and intended audience to brainstorm and map out the interview you expect. Also, prepare for the unexpected. If the media opportunity is particularly sensitive or important, it may be worthwhile to consider arranging for professional assistance.
Line up a “first listener” for this particular interview. Novelists and other writers often develop a long-term relationship with a “first reader” – the person who reads and responds to their new material before anyone else. Similarly, a career development professional can (and should) line up a trusted associate to provide feedback for comments and observations you plan to make in a media interview. The assessment should be constructive and unvarnished; the best choices for a “first listener” are probably not your assistant, your spouse or the person you passed over for promotion last month. Your supervisor, a long-term, trusted client, or a colleague with whom you might arrange a reciprocal evaluation agreement would be good choices.
It is extremely useful to have one primary arrangement, a person with whom you work on interview preparation on a regular, ongoing basis. In addition, you should have an array of possible alternatives for specific interviews. For example, the colleague or friend you’d approach to chat with you about the questions you anticipate and the manner in which you plan to word your answers for a local television interview about employment assistance training in the prison system might (and probably, should) be a different person than the one whose comments would be most helpful in focusing on a print article on American workplace trends for The Economist.
These are seven of the most effective steps to take when a reporter calls. They are not the only ones, of course, and won’t guarantee a successful outcome, but they definitely raise the odds. They also add to the likelihood that you will recognize potential roadblocks in advance, and prepare to go over or around them.
Gail Hulnick, MA, MBA, is a communications consultant and President of WindWord Communications Inc., based in Vancouver, BC. She works with clients on presentation skills and media strategies and delivers workshops and speeches at national and international gatherings. She will be taking part in a discussion of Media Strategies at the National Career Development Association Global Conference in San Francisco in June. For more information on this topic, attend her round table discussion on “Getting Your Story Told” at the NCDA Conference on June 30, 2010 from 2:30 to 3:30 pm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org