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Don’t Do What Bernie Sanders Did Seven Ways To Avoid Media Gaffes

Some of the worst media relations techniques in recent memory are on full display as the candidates from the two major parties vie for our votes. In the interest of being a non-partisan I promise to ridicule each of the four remaining candidates from both parties equally as they screw up.

The latest is Bernie Sanders ill-conceived interview with the New York Daily News as recapped by The Washington Post. You can read what the post has to say here:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2016/04/05/9-things-bernie-sanders-shouldve-known-about-but-didnt-in-that-daily-news-interview/

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) delivers a foreign policy speech on March 21. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) delivers a foreign policy speech on March 21. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

So here is what you can learn from this interview.

  1. Have a message in mind before the interview starts. From reading the transcript it is impossible to tell what Sanders wanted the readers to know as a result of the interview. So before it ever starts, decide what it is that readers will know that is different from what they knew beforehand.
  2. Know who you are talking to and why. Sort of related to number one in that a communications goal for an interview needs to be that the message is audience appropriate. For example, when addressing the Candy and Confections magazine editor, it’s a good idea to relate to what the readers are expecting which is sweets. Similarly, people who read the New York Daily News will expect a fellow New Yorker like Sanders to be able to answer pretty basic questions all related to his previously stated positions. You want to break up the banks? Great, just tell us how. This was not “gotcha” journalism. Sanders stump speech covers all these topics. He should have expected to be asked these questions and been ready with plausible answers.
  3. Stay on message. Sanders let’s the reporter control the content of the interview. Big mistake. Have a list of 3-5 messages for the reporter and stick to those. If he asked about Palestinian settlements and you want to talk about banks, bridge from the question to the thing you really want to talk about. Here is how that might look: “I know the situation in Israel is complex and will take a lot of time and work to resolve. But we can start fixing the banking system here at home in far less time by referring charges of specific bankers to the attorney general…..”
  4. If you do not know, say so. People hate to say ‘I don’t know’ but it is a perfectly acceptable answer. ‘I don’t know right off the top of my head, but let me call you later with a more informed answer….” and then do so. It’s way ahead of answering “I assume so” when asked about statutes and laws. Aren’t you a senator?
  5. Avoid spouting nonsense. For example, when asked how he would know which banks were to be closed, Senator Sanders replied, “you would determine is that, if a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. And then you have the secretary of treasury and some people who know a lot about this, making that determination.” Pure and unadulterated gibberish. A clever high school kid could come up with a better answer.
  6. Do your homework. Clearly the reporter doing this interview had done his. So whether someone is running for president, announcing a new product, or addressing the local chamber of commerce, show up with the knowledge that people most associate with you and your business. If you are a baker and have limited knowledge of flour, decline the interview.

I’m exasperated that someone who is as smart as Senator Sanders surely must be with the resources to hire the best handlers anywhere, comes off looking like such a dope. Sanders should be schooling the reporters on bank policy, rules of governance and responsibilities to shareholders and customers. Instead he blathers on with nothing but platitudes. You can almost feel him shrugging his shoulders.

The same is true of his answers about Israel and dealing with ISIS. ISIS members have attacked Paris, Brussels and threaten Western Civilization. That he has no answer for dealing with them as president is completely indefensible and unacceptable.

7. If your client is an inarticulate idiot, keep him/her away from reporters. President Reagan used to pretend that the helicopter noise was preventing him from hearing reporters questions so he did not have to answer. Someone should get Bernie a helicopter.

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Eight Ways to Answer Media Interview Questions

Eight Ways to Answer Media Interview Questions.

Be prepared before accepting any media invitation.
Be prepared before accepting any media invitation.

I have a recurring nightmare that there is a You Tube video of me that has “gone viral” because of some incredibly ignorant thing I’ve said and done. In my dream, the details of what I said or did are unclear. What is clear is that I somehow disgraced myself while on camera. I wake feeling flushed, embarrassed and not able to get over whatever it was that got posted everywhere. It is not a good feeling.

The best thing to remember when preparing to answer media questions is that you are there to promote you, or your business, cause or candidate. You are not there to make friends, get laughs, or prove how smart you are. An interview is about getting on the air or in print the facts and point of view you want to read and most importantly you want current and prospective customers, donors or voters to hear, see or read. Here is how.

  1. Know your message points. Write 3-5 short, declarative sentences that are the core of your communications. These are the points that will anchor you to a good outcome. I like to call these message points “must airs” as they are the points that you “must air” during the interview to be a success.
  2. Learn to bridge. There are going to be times when a reporter will ask you a question that you do not want to answer or are not able to answer. Instead of a silent dead-eyed stare, take the question and build a “verbal bridge” to one of the must airs you want to make. Here is an example. Say you are in the pet food business and you are introducing a new type of cat food for people who have a lot of money to spend on pets. This food is made domestically (one of your must airs) and is very high in protein, vitamins and minerals (another must air), and made under the supervision of the U.S. government (final must air). These are the points you want to emphasize for an interview.

You are talking with a reporter about this new cat food and she asks you about concerns that cat owners have about contamination due to ethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol is used in anti-freeze and is extremely poisonous. A number of pets were killed by it when contaminated cat food made in China was sold here. The last thing you want associated in the media with your new cat food are the words “contamination” or “ethylene glycol” so you bridge. Here is how that answer could look. “Our new food is very high in nutrients and made domestically under the watchful eye of the FDA and other regulators, so our customers can have complete confidence in it.” See what you did?

You re-stated that your food was made here, that it was high in nutritional value and regulated under U.S. law. See what you did not do? You did not repeat any language about China, contamination, ethylene glycol or poison. Instead of a response that would reinforce negative ideas about cat food and remind everyone about how cat food once poisoned a lot of cats, you used this as a place to emphasize positives about your product. That is bridging. It is not easy and not for beginners. To be good at it takes a lot of practice.

  1. Bridge to keep the conversation on track. The time you and the reporter have are limited. There are times when friendly, get acquainted chat can take up too much time. If you find that the conversation has strayed from the topic you want to talk about find a way to bridge back. Here is an example. A reporter has started talking about all the funny cat videos on You Tube that are shared on her Facebook page and just how entertaining they are. This has gone on for about long enough, so bring the conversation back by saying something like, “those videos remind me and other pet lovers about how important these animals are to us and how we have a duty to care for them in the best way possible and that includes how we feed them…” This is not a great example but you get the idea. Gently deliver the conversation back to the thing you want to talk about.
  2. Practice. This is not something any of us was born knowing. To get good at it will take practice. Get a co-worker to ask you difficult or irrelevant questions so you can practice bridging to the answers you want to see or hear.
  3. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. So many times interviewees believe that they have a duty to know every single thing about their topic. No such expectation exists, as no reasonable person would expect you to know every last thing about anything. So if you do not know, say so. It is an honest answer. Promise the reporter to look into their question and to get back to them with an answer, then do so.
  4. Keep your answers short. This too comes with practice. I love to talk, so keeping my answers short has taken a lot of time and effort. Also I’ve spent a lot of time working with technical people over the years. Technicians and engineers are really smart and know a lot and they love to talk about how much they know. This is great for technical presentations but not with reporters. Long answers can be misunderstood and are easy to misquote. If you keep the answer short, there is less chance for a misunderstanding. So if you tend to go on and on, realize it and practice shorter answers.
  5. Always tell the truth. If you tell the truth 99 times and tell a lie 1 time, you are a liar. Getting caught in a lie is embarrassing. Getting caught in a lie by a reporter will end your career. If there are things you are not able to talk about then say so. For example, if there is a court case ongoing or some other information that needs to be kept confidential, then say that. If the results of a study or test are positive, then say that too without embellishment. Interviews with the press are not the time for “fish stories”. If there is some negative to report, then do so. Trying to be cute, clever or spin answers will alienate reporters and they can spot and smell “bovine excrement” for miles.
  6. Practice more. And practice on camera if possible. Speakers will learn a great deal about how to better their performances watching themselves on camera.

There are tons of other articles and even entire books written on just this topic. So do not limit yourself, go and read those too. There is lots to know and plenty of smart people who can help you. The 7 points made here are all techniques that I have used for nearly years and I can tell you from personal experience that they work. Good luck with your interview. Now go practice!

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Six Steps To Prepare for a Successful Press Interview

Media interviews can make or brake a business or career. Learn to manage them.
Media interviews can make or brake a business or career. Learn to manage them.

Six Steps To Prepare for a Successful Press Interview. If you read these postings in order you have so far: learned how public relations is better than advertising, built a media list of contacts who cover businesses like yours, learned how to write a press release and how to follow up with reporters via phone. If you missed any of these it is easy to go back and read them. Just scroll down.

With a well-written press release, and targeted press follow up you have persuaded a reporter to interview you. That is a very good thing. Potentially. It can also be an unmitigated disaster if not planned for and executed properly. Anyone, regardless of how much experience they have in life, business or media interviews, courts disaster if not properly prepared. Anyone who says they will just “wing it” for an interview is marked for trouble. Big trouble. Imagine epic, viral failure posted everywhere. You do not want that. And frankly speaking if you are not willing to make time to prepare for a media interview, you are better served to just not do it. If possible postpone the interview or delegate it to someone who does and will make time to prepare.

The outcome of an interview should not be the result of how well the reporter is to interview you or the questions he/she asks. Reporters are busy and probably have several other interviews to do the same day as yours. You cannot rely on being asked the right question to have a positive story. Instead, you have to control the content of the interview. You control the interview based on what you choose to say and most importantly what you do not say. So knowing in advance what you intend to talk about it is vital.

Here are the steps to preparing for an interview.

  1. What do you want to read or hear after the interview? Literally, what do you want the headline or lead to be? Write it down. Nothing is real unless it is written down. Thinking about it is fine, but writing uses parts of the brain that will reinforce your ideas and help you both remember and think harder about the points you want published and/or broadcast.
  2. Think in sound bites or “must airs”. A sound bite is a short burst of information that is easy to repeat, understand, and edit. A “must air” is that point you absolutely need to make during an interview for it to be successful. A point that needs airing that you “must air” during the interview to be a success. Humans who do not have perfect memories edit TV, radio, podcasts, and even written articles. They have lots more on their minds than just your interview. So make remembering the news you want reported easy to remember by writing your “must airs” down in advance. So naturally the next step is….
  3. Write your sound bites/must airs down. Once you know what they are, write them down in the order of importance. A good sound bite /must air is a short declarative sentence. Like this one. Limit this list to between 3-5 items. You will have a difficult time remembering more than this and if you can’t remember them, the reporter you are talking to will have no chance of remembering them either.
  4. With your sound bites/must airs written down in the order of importance, edit them a bit more. Remember that shorter is better when it comes to talking with a reporter.
  5. Stay on message. This is especially important for people who are new to doing interviews and for those who have a lot of experience (see what I did there?). The best way to be quoted saying something stupid is to drift away from those carefully crafted must airs. Never get off topic. Your must airs are your anchor. They keep you moored to the truth that you want published/broadcast. If you find yourself getting off topic during an interview, regroup and get back on message.
  6. Find a friend, colleague, or your friendly public relations person and practice the interview. If you have the ability, video the session and watch it later. Over the years, I’ve found that people I work with learn more from watching themselves on video than anything else.

If people who want to use the media to promote their businesses or causes never read, hear, or learn anything from me again I hope this is it. This methodology and thinking about “must airs” will work for media interviews but that is not the limit. Use this technique for job interviews, meetings with superiors, staff, or any other challenging meeting where you are required to communicate. Anchored to your “must airs” will serve you well regardless of the venue.