While it is often a satisfying and rewarding career, sometimes public relations can be like river dancing through a mine field. Unlike marketing, where you have the ability to manage every aspect of the process, in PR there are a lot of variables over which you have no control. Those variables can lead to some significant (and embarrassing) interview mistakes.
Now, it’s true that even the best-laid plans can go awry. I’m not talking about things such as a stock market crash, the discovery of the Lost Ark, or some other “stop the presses” news event occurring on the same day as your big product announcement that causes all your interviews to be canceled. Those you have to chalk up to you-know-what happens and live to fight another day.
What I’m talking about is the unforced errors that can come as a result of poor preparation or not paying attention to the details. Here are a few you’ll want to be sure to avoid.
Not thoroughly testing the product before a demo
This happened at previous agency I worked at, although thankfully not to me. The agency had a client who had developed educational software for use in schools, and had scheduled a press conference in Washington, DC to debut it and hopefully gain government support for it.
My colleagues at the agency worked diligently to get major news outlets to attend, including cable news networks who brought camera crews to document this wonderful new development. The CEO started putting the product through its paces, which went fine for a while. Then it happened.
He talked about how the software would prevent students from going on to inappropriate websites, and he proudly entered the URL of a well-known porn site that shared a name with the president’s residence. Sure enough, up popped images that were decidedly not safe for school, work, or press conferences.
At that point the camera crews started packing up, the print journalists left, and the client was left staring at an empty room long before the scheduled demo was over. Needless to say, the big press event didn’t generate any publicity – which was probably a good thing given the stories that could have come out.
Had the client run the demo that day before the press conference, they could have identified the problem and fixed it before the press arrived. But they didn’t. The moral of the story is never leave anything to chance.
Not preparing properly for an interview
A good PR professional will usually put together background information for the subject matter expert (SME) before an interview. The information will include the topic the journalist is interested in covering and how it relates to what the company does. In some cases, the journalist will even send sample questions prior to the interview so the SME know ahead of time what areas of the topic the journalist plans to focus on.
That’s all great information. But just like patients need to take their prescriptions and follow the doctor’s plan of care if they want to get healthier, the SMEs need to study the background material and come in prepared if they want to improve their chances of making it into the story.
Interviews that veer off-topic like a sports car speeding down an icy road are unlikely to produce much that’s usable to a journalist. SMEs who stumble through their answers sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about – even when they do – and thus are more likely to be dismissed by a journalist who has multiple sources.
Remember that unlike your company’s PR agency or internal writers who have to make something out of what the SME says, no matter how off-the-wall it is, journalists are under no obligation to use them as sources. Proper preparation will yield better results.
Turning an interview into a sales presentation
This is related to the previous point, but is kind of the other end of the spectrum. In this case the SME knows what he/she wants to say, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the interview topic. Instead, the SME wants to tout product features regardless of the questions.
Going that route is one of the fastest ways to get an interview to end early and to find your organization left out of the story. Remember that the journalist isn’t talking to the SME to purchase the company’s product. He/she is trying to help readers learn more about a topic.
Not saying something quotable
Remember Ben Stein as Ferris Buehler’s economics teacher? If not, here’s a quick video reminder:
Everything the teacher says is true. But it’s not memorable, interesting, or engaging. Thus the blank looks on his student’s faces.
Part of good preparation for an interview is thinking of what you’d ideally like the SME to be quoted as saying about the topic. Then write it out, have it handy, and have the SME look for a way to work it into the conversation. Putting together a few good options is even better.
Some people are better at coming up with sound bites on the spot than others. If you have an SME who is one of those, you may not need to take this extra step. But if you don’t, give him/her a helping hand and you’re more likely to see your company included.
Droning on, and on, and on, and…
I’ve definitely been in interviews where it sounded like someone pushed the “play” button on the SME and then went out to get a sandwich. It can be painful. It also makes you wonder how long the SME can hold their breath under water.
An interview is supposed to be a two-way conversation between the journalist and the SME. Tough to have a conversation, however, when one side talks non-stop for a half hour.
Be sure SMEs know they should keep answers relatively short, and take frequent pauses in case the journalist wants to go more deeply into something he/she said. Asking “does that make sense?” or a similar type of question also gives the journalist a chance to speak, and possibly redirect the conversation if he/she isn’t getting what’s needed.
Dropping your guard too soon
This one also happened to someone else’s client during an in-person interview at another agency. The conversation had gone well, and the SME and journalist were packing things up to leave.
Then the journalist asked an offhand question about some confidential information about the company, and the SME (who was CEO, as I recall) was only too happy to share it, figuring that the interview was already over. Wrong. Guess what became the headline of the story?
As Yogi Berra used to say, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” SMEs should never say anything to a journalist that they don’t want to see used in the story, even if it feels like they’re through with the formal interview.
Unless someone specifies a comment is “off the record” (and even then sometimes with those rare unscrupulous journalists) it’s all fair game. Remember that and a lot of embarrassment and hand-wringing will be saved.
Go for the win
Things are going to happen during interviews from time to time that prevent your organization from making it into the story. But your SMEs don’t have to help that process along.
Avoid the unforced errors and you’ll find you get a lot more value from your PR investment.
What sorts of interview errors have you seen? Share your stories in the comments below.