During the interview
Get your messages across
Have we said that before? Here it is again. Come to an interview prepared with your messages and find opportunities to get them across without ignoring the reporter’s questions. Take the initiative. You are the expert. You know what is important to tell the public – so tell them.
Be informative, not conversational
News interviews are exchanges of information. You are the source of that information; the reporter represents the public. Do not feel obligated to maintain the social rules of conduct that guide conversations. Beware of the reporter who remains silent, encouraging you to ramble or dilute your original message. It’s human nature to want to fill those lulls with conversation. Don’t.
Reporters generally don’t want lengthy, drawn-out explanations. They’re looking for quotable quotes – a punchy line that will fill three lines of newsprint or 20 seconds of air time. Use your 20 seconds to get your message across – there’s much more likelihood it will be used. Knowing what you want to say in advance will go a long way in simplifying your answers. Forty-five seconds is about the maximum response time for television and other media as well, unless the reporter truly wants a complete understanding of, for example, neutrino physics – in which case you may have 90 seconds.
Don’t go off the record
There is no such thing as off the record. An “off-the-record” comment may not be attributed to you directly, but the reporter often will use the information to confirm a story with other sources. If you don’t want something to appear in print, don’t say it.
Know your role
When you are conducting an interview, understand your role. If you are serving as a spokesperson for the university – or in some instances as spokesperson for a given committee or organization – remember: reporters will not distinguish between personal opinion and the university’s position – and neither will the public. Answer questions appropriately. If you don’t know the university’s position on a particular issue, find out; don’t speculate.
If you are providing commentary, opinion or perspective for a news story, and have not been designated as a spokesperson for the university, make certain reporters understand you are offering your own views as a scholar, researcher or expert in a field.
Separating the university from personal advocacy
Public employees are prohibited from using their office to advocate political causes. If you are involved in a political campaign, be sure to separate your university and private duties. You may not, for example, use your office letterhead to write a letter urging a vote for or against a particular candidate or ballot measure. You can, however, give reasons why the person or cause would benefit or harm the institution. However, be certain you have clearly identified any offered opinion as your own and not a position given on behalf of the university. Additional latitude may be allowed when the UC Board of Regents has taken a stand on an issue. If you have questions regarding these regulations, Strategic Communications can assist you in getting them answered.
Don’t use jargon
Avoid using terms or acronyms that can’t be quoted without explanation.
- Don’t say: “We’re pleased that such a high percentage of students returned their SIRs.”
- Do say: “We’re pleased that so many students intend to register at UCI.”
Say what you mean
Avoid bureaucratic language: “It is clear that much additional work will be required before we have a complete understanding of the issue.” Instead, say, “We’re working on it.”
Tell the truth
The truth may hurt, but lies are deadly. You probably will get caught, and reporters don’t forget sources who have “burned” them. Give a direct answer when asked a direct question, even if the answer is “No,” “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question.” You will come across as an honest, forthright person.
These are reporters, not physicists or physicians. You may have to begin at the beginning to help them understand an issue.
Don’t lose your temper
Sometimes reporters are intentionally rude to elicit a charged response. Don’t fall into the trap. Respond politely, in control at all times. Don’t get into arguments – your angry comments may be reported without any mention of the provocation.
It’s an interview, not an interrogation. Establish rapport with the reporter.
Don’t answer a question with a question
The reporters asks, “What do you think about affirmative action?” Don’t say, “What do you mean by affirmative action?” Or, “What do you think about it?” Such responses come across as evasive, pejorative or hostile.
Don’t say “No comment” or “I can neither confirm nor deny.” The public views this as: “I know but I won’t say.” Instead, tell the reporter that you are unable to comment and, if possible, why. If a reporter asks about a document that is in draft form, for example, tell the reporter: “I’m sorry, this is a working draft, and I’ll be able to comment as soon as it becomes public.” Offer to let the reporter know when the document is available.
Don’t answer when you shouldn’t
If you know the answer to a question but can’t say, don’t hesitate to refer the reporter elsewhere – to Strategic Communications if you’re unsure where that appropriate elsewhere might be. Don’t forget to let other offices know when you have referred a reporter.
- Question: “I understand Joe Irvine is about to be appointed as a distinguished professor. Is that true?”
- Answer: “I’m sorry but I just can’t answer that question for you. The appropriate office to answer all faculty appointment questions is the executive vice chancellor’s office. You should call there.”
Again, don’t answer questions if you are not the appropriate spokesperson. If a reporter presses, repeat your answer. Don’t waver. (And don’t go off the record.)
If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. And be sure you offer to either find the answer or find someone else who knows. Don’t guess, thinking the reporter will check elsewhere. There’s a good chance your misinformation will appear in print.
It’s okay to make a mistake
The tape is rolling and you realize you’ve made a mistake. Or, more likely, you suddenly find you have no idea what you’re saying. Stop. Say, “I’m sorry, I haven’t answered your question very well. Let me back up.” The reporter usually will prefer your new, crisp response.
Talk from the public’s point of view
Remember that you are talking through the reporter to the public. How does what you are talking about affect individuals in the community? How does it affect their children’s education? Say it in terms readers and viewers can relate to. If, for example, there was a toxic spill on campus, the public wouldn’t care much how quickly it was cleaned up or how many workers dedicated themselves to the effort. The public wants to know whether their health is in danger.
Reporters love facts and figures that will lend credibility to their stories or make certain points. But don’t exaggerate facts by using superlatives that make things sound bigger and better than they are.
Be prepared to repeat yourself
Reporters may repeat their question because your answer was too long, too complex, they didn’t understand you, or they’re simply trying to get a more pithy response. Welcome the question as another opportunity to state your message, perhaps more clearly.
You’re the expert. You have a message to deliver. Recognize that reporters in fact may be somewhat intimated by your expertise or position. Put them at ease.
Respect the reporter’s deadline
Find out their deadlines and return calls promptly. Showing respect for deadlines will go a long way toward building positive media relations. If you can’t return a reporter’s call, please contact Strategic Communications to assist you.
Don’t be defensive
Make positive statements instead of denying or refuting comments from others. State your message; let others speak for themselves.
Be aware of when you are being taped
In broadcast situations, such as in the studio or when talking to a radio reporter, it is wise to assume that everything you say is being recorded.
Use anecdotes, humor
Use examples to illustrate your points. What will sell a story about, say, graduate fellowships, are not statistics but human interest about real students with real accomplishments. Use humor, an interesting quote. Television in particular is “show business” so entertain when appropriate.
Avoid reading from prepared statements
This is especially true when you are on camera. You are the expert and ought to know what you want to say without a “script.”
Never ask a reporter to preview the story
Reporters generally never let sources review stories, though they often check back for scientific details. Remember, it’s their job to gather the facts and tell the story accurately – to suggest they can’t do so without your input insults their professionalism. Besides, they won’t let you, so there’s little point in asking. It’s better to listen carefully during an interview to be aware of when a reporter may not understand something. Remember that the likelihood of your being misquoted is reduced substantially if you speak briefly and clearly.