Acing the Interview Preparation Is Everything

Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote, once said, “To be prepared is half the victory.” But, when it comes to effective media communications for a CEO–particularly in the current overheated media environment–being prepared isn’t just half the path to victory; it’s everything. Two recent examples–NBC reporter Tim Russert’s legacy and an unfortunate CNBC interview–underscore this point.

Time and time again, we see CEOs, who prepare for almost everything, fail to prepare for a critical trade or business interview. If anything positive can come from Russert’s death, it’s the opportunity to learn from his expertise and approach to journalism. Russert knew as much as possible about the senior public officials he interviewed. Similarly, a CEO should both develop an agenda for the interview and calibrate to the reporter. Before walking into any interview, you should be familiar with the journalist’s work and the types of questions he or she is liable to ask that may go beyond the scope of your prepared platform. This is true for any type of interview–TV, radio, or print.

The CEO of a division of a large multinational corporation recently demonstrated how disastrous the lack of thorough preparation can be when he appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” While the CEO was ready with his own agenda, he was not prepared to answer other relevant questions. The agreed-upon subject was his company’s new food products; it was reasonable to expect that a financial reporter would ask how rising commodity prices were impacting the business. By failing to adequately answer this basic question, the CEO appeared uninformed and lost credibility with the reporters. This mistake illustrates a key difference between earned media and paid media. When you buy advertising or put up a message on a web site, you can control it. When you are interviewed by a reporter, there can be an agreed-upon topic, but the reporter has the right to ask other related questions.

While it is important to stick to your key messages, you also need to know the issues that affect your business so you can answer a reporter’s questions intelligently. After you answer the question you can circle back to your agenda.

Russert was a master at conducting effective interviews. Here are some lessons we can learn from his work.

Preparation is job one. Russert had a superb research staff that made sure he was thoroughly informed about his guests. It’s a mistake for CEOs to walk into an interview underestimating the reporter’s knowledge and acumen. Russert often treated guests better when he knew they were prepared and could defend their positions.

Know the reporter. CEOs should think of reporters as a type of customer. The more you know about him or her, the better you will succeed. Some trade and business reporters stay on the same beat for two or three years. You can learn their approach with a little research. Study video clips or use Google, Nexus, and Factiva–all good sources to learn about a reporter’s style.

Answer the difficult questions. CEOs should always answer the difficult question reporters ask them. Deflecting or avoiding these questions by changing the subject makes viewers suspicious. In a print interview, failure to answer a legitimate question makes a reporter less willing to interview you again or utilize marketing materials and press releases. After the tough question is answered then bridge to the agreed upon topic. Answering the reporter’s question earns you the right to get to your agenda.

Be prepared for “gotcha” questions. Russert was known for presenting inconsistencies in published statements and then asking for an explanation. More and more reporters have adopted this technique. A skilled CEO should be aware of different “on the record” statements and be ready for the question.

Prepare, practice, and practice again. CEOs preparing for press interviews should go through several rehearsals and perhaps videotaped run-throughs. A good practice session will come up with different twists on anticipated questions. Include the worst case scenario questions in your training session. Guests of “Meet the Press” called this practice the “Murder Board.” They got killed in a practice room instead of on national television.

Andrew Gilman is President of CommCore Consulting Group, which specializes in Media and Crisis Preparation and Training. Jennifer Goff, Communications Specialist at CommCore assisted in writing this article.

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