Media interviews provide the ultimate dose of credibility. After all, if the New York Times or CNN thinks you're worth talking to, who am I to argue? Even appearances in local newspapers, radio programs, or trade publications can significantly bolster your reputation. But, conversely, media hits gone wrong can damage your credibility and hinder your chances of getting another shot.
So how do you ensure that you're prepared when your big moment arrives? Here are five key strategies.
1) Know the specs. Sometimes, in the excitement of booking a media appearance, little details can get overlooked. Be sure to find out whether the program is live or taped, with or without callers, and what the precise topic is going to be. (You don't want to go in blind, armed with only general business bromides, if the host plans to discuss a particular company in depth.) Make sure you know how long the interview will last, if there are other guests, and whether it's on radio or TV (for unfamiliar stations, call letters can be surprisingly ambiguous).
2) Know what you want to say. Don't assume you can "wing it." Depending on the length of your interview, plan at least three main points in advance that you'd like to raise. Write them on a notecard so you don't forget.
3) Know what you don't want to say. It's inevitable -- reporters have a different agenda than we do. You may want to promote your product, while they want you to trash the competition. You may want to talk industry trends, while they're seeking comment on today's scandalous breaking news. Be prepared. Write out a list in advance of random questions they may throw at you, related to current events, your competition, failures, corporate secrets -- anything to make you squirm. Make sure you've got a good response that allows you to dodge the question without seeming too obvious or oily. ("You raise a good point, Joe, but it's our company policy not to discuss our competitors. However, I can say that in general we believe...")
4) Control the information. Research the reporter beforehand. Does she have pet issues she likes to focus on? What has she been writing about lately? Is he known for having a rightward (or leftward) tilt? How are ratings? What has the show been lauded or criticized for? Information is power, and allows you to be prepared for unexpected questions or maneuvers. Candidate George W. Bush was famously blindsided when Boston TV reporter Andy Hiller stumped him on-air with a "pop quiz" about foreign leaders -- a trap he could have avoided if only his staff had researched Hiller's style and typical bag of tricks.
5) Work out the kinks in advance -- not on the air. Grab a friend, or a staffer. Make them pretend to be the reporter, first acting nice, and then nasty. Your responses become sharper and better with practice, and it's better to subject your colleagues to rambling "first draft" answers than to see them in print and on the Internet for the rest of time.
These days, between the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of blogs, Internet news sites and online video, the need for quality content has never been higher. Good interview subjects who can provide pithy, interesting soundbites are in short supply. And that means that if you master the techniques above, you'll quickly become a valuable source.