Got an Appointment with a Journalist? Here’s What To Do Before the Interview


Get Shift Done: Management

Congratulations! You made sure that reporters can reach you, you strategized reasons for them to want to talk with you, and now you have an interview lined up with a journalist from a relevant media outlet. Many companies never make it this far, so you’ve accomplished quite a bit. Now all you have to do is not blow it.

Let’s start with the easy pieces, first. You want the phone or in-person interview to go well, which presumably means ensuring that you are well-prepared for the issues the reporter is likely to raise.

DO: Ask the reporter for topics he wants to explore.

DON’T: Ask the reporter for a list of questions. Ever.

Wait, you ask: Aren’t those close to the same thing? It seems so, but there is a huge difference. Asking about the topic and areas of interest is necessary to prepare. But asking for a full list of questions can be seen as insulting.

More important: For many of us, it’s an unanswerable question. For almost every interview, I only prepare one or maybe two questions. The rest is based on what answers the interviewee gives. A good interview is similar to a conversation, with a natural back and forth. I typically follow the interviewee’s lead. The only way for me to give you a complete list of questions is if you can give me a complete list of answers.

Another question to avoid: What is your deadline? The only answer — and it happens to be true — is, “As soon as possible.” I write a story as soon as I have enough information. Therefore, get us the information immediately to maximize your chance of being included. (That’s the case for news stories. Reporters who write feature articles work on a different cadence. Don’t assume they’re the same.)

Timing is always a factor. When you schedule the interview, ask about its expected length. A reporter prepares differently for a 15-minute call than for a one-hour interview, and so should you.

Perhaps the biggest reason for interview failures is when the interviewee doesn’t deliver usable information for the reporter that contributes to his story. Reading prior stories is a tremendous first step to avoiding that pitfall. The more you know about the reporter’s previous work, the better you can craft your own message.

To begin with, you don’t need to tell him things that he already knows. You don’t want to say the obvious to a reporter who has covered this technology area for 20 years; nor should you jump deep into the technical minutiae with a reporter who started covering this beat on Monday. A careful analysis of the writer’s published stories avoids both problems.

Startups and small businesses today have a free research tool that simply didn’t exist 25 years ago: a search engine. It’s your best tool to prepare yourself for a press interview with the individual with whom you’ll be speaking.

Just about all reporters doing interviews today have their recent work online and available for instant review. This allows you to gain deep useful insights into what your reporter has written and what perspectives he finds compelling. The question then is: What to do with that information? Here’s a few suggestions.

Always offer something that is materially different than what the reporter has already written. A common “nice try but fail” PR move is a story folo (which is PR-speak for “follow-up”). This happens when a PR person takes a very recent story and pitches something just about identical to it.

For example, let’s say a journalist published a story last week about a European security standard (which I did), and this PR person’s client wasn’t quoted. (Or it’s the startup CEO herself, but this happens more often with PR people.) The PR representative pitches the journalist a story that highlights her client’s perspective about that security standard. This makes journalists say, “Huh?” If I just published a big story about this topic two days ago, why would I want to do another story on it now? Had I spoken with the startup’s CEO while I was researching the first story, I might indeed have quoted her. But once that story runs, most reporters (and certainly their editors) are looking for something new.

Bottom line on that example? If you missed an opportunity to be quoted, and you want to get on the reporter’s radar for next time, make sure that you offer a substantially different angle. One option is to make a case that the entire premise of the first piece was wrong. Give the reporter a really good reason to revisit the topic soon. Even better: Give a new, unique, non-obvious angle on topic. No journalist is going to write an “Oh, and furthermore…” article on the same topic. But he might possibly write an article about an unexplored aspect of the subject, such as “5 ways this new standard can make a difference in a seemingly unrelated industry.”

The more valuable long-term benefit is an opportunity to get to know the journalists who cover your market segment. Your goal should be for you to have enough of a relationship that of course I’d think to ask for your input for an article. If something is underway in your corner of the industry — a new security standard, perhaps — you (or your top-notch PR pro) should consider who’d be interested in covering it, and offer a technical or business opinion.

The media industry’s worst-kept secret is that, with very few exceptions, the site search engines for media outlets suck. Many reporters go outside their site to a search engine to find their own stories. The best technique is to use the advanced search capabilities for one of the major search engines (I’m partial to Google) and then limit the search to that reporter’s site. And then do a search for that reporter’s name.

One critical item is to watch for publication date, which most search engines handle abysmally. Search engines often mix 15-year-old stories in the middle of pieces that ran yesterday. This results in the awkward PR pitch that says, “Saw that you just covered XYZ and would love to offer a different perspective” with a link to an article that ran in 1989.

That doesn’t give you an excuse to choose an article as evidence of research and then go random. A PR person sometimes references a recent story and makes a pitch that has absolutely nothing to do with that story. A mild exaggeration: “Loved the story you did yesterday about the point of sale security fiasco at Wal-Mart. My client is about to introduce a new development tool to help geothermal research. When can we set up an interview?” Huh?

If all goes properly, the reporter and the source work from the same goal. A story is identified, one that both the reporter and the source(s) want to happen. The reporter wants to learn more about your perspective and the source wants to share that. With a little care and attention to understanding the reporter’s work history, the shared goal can be met easily.

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