Last but not least in our series of blog posts from Group Gordon’s summer interns, Avery Suter applies lessons learned as a campus tour guide to navigating media interviews. 8.6.15
A media interview with a top-tier outlet is a golden opportunity for an organization, company, or brand… if it goes well! However, for many leaders and spokespeople, interaction with the press also presents opportunities to stumble and fall.
As a college tour guide, I spend a lot of time telling stories, answering questions, and walking backwards – while trying not to stumble and fall literally, but also in my interactions with prospective students and parents. And while tours have definitely improved my agility and coordination, they’ve done a much better job of improving my public speaking and interview skills.
What does that have to do with a media interview? Giving a tour is a lot like being questioned by a reporter; you want to answer all of the questions while still presenting yourself and your institution in the best possible light.
But a tour is much more than just a Q&A. It’s about building a relationship with visitors. Similarly, a media interview is an opportunity to build a relationship with the reporter. Being a good source means knowing about a specific situation, but it also means proving that you’re someone a reporter wants to work with. Here are some lessons I’ve gleaned from my time as a tour guide that can help you establish a real connection with a reporter.
I know a lot of random factoids about my school that I share on tours: the anthropology building was originally the women’s dorm; our chancellor had a hand in the development of glow sticks; we have a butter-churning club! I don’t expect my visitors to remember everything I say, but I know they will remember how I said it. I am the visitors’ guide and expert on the college and if I say the school is awesome in a genuine and excited way, it becomes so in their eyes too.
While it’s easy to see why enthusiasm makes such an impression on nervous high-schoolers, its effect on journalists shouldn’t be underestimated. During an interview, make clear not only your knowledge about the topic, but also your passion for it. Whether a topic is new to a reporter or their usual beat, the way you talk about it can shape or transform the way they think about it.
Be the expert
Every once in a while, I come across a visitor who asks a pointed question – usually based on rumors or gossip from online college discussion forums – to try to stump me or catch me off guard. These visitors think tour guides are hired spin doctors and doubt whatever I say. When these situations arise, I fall back on the facts: statistics or stories that support my answers. Even if I can’t sway the questioning visitor, I can reassure the rest of the group that I’m not just spinning threads.
While most reporters are polite and just want honest answers to their questions, some are more like the doubtful parent on my tour. Usually, either something about their previous research makes them question your answer or they decided their angle ahead of time and are just digging for that ‘gotcha’ moment. When faced with skeptical reporters, don’t let their doubt shake you. Rely on your experience and expertise; use numbers, examples, and anecdotes to back up an answer.
Be okay with saying “I don’t know”
This may seem at odds with the previous point, but giving out incorrect information is far worse than admitting you don’t know everything. While it can be embarrassing to admit not knowing certain statistics or facts about my school, these instances open up opportunities to follow up. When I don’t know the answer to a question, I make sure after the tour to connect the visitor with the appropriate official or grab them a pamphlet with the info. This extra bit of effort conveys that I (and by extension, the college) care about the visitor and want to do my utmost to help them.
If you have to say, “I don’t know,” in a media interview, follow it with a promise to get back to the reporter once you have an answer. That follow-up goes a long way towards establishing your reliability as a source; it shows reporters that you care about helping them and, just as importantly, keeps you in contact. The one kind of follow-up you want to avoid at all costs? The correction. If you answer a question you’re not sure about and later have to correct yourself, you seriously hurt your standing with a journalist. Avoid that hit to your credibility by simply saying “I don’t know.”
Following these tips can help build relationships with reporters and keep them coming back to you as a source.