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Matthew Lawrence, Strategic Communications and Marketing Professional, via linkedin, published December 27, 2018
It’s no surprise that Army officers tend to be ‘can-do’ type people who don’t shy away from things that need to be done; however, knowing when to get advice from a subject matter expert is the key to success in many ventures. Unfortunately, when it comes to engaging with the media, too many leaders assume that their abilities will enable them to shine because, well, they are great, successful, smart people. Media interviews are deceptively easy-looking, and if you do not put in the same thought and preparation into your media engagement as you do other missions, whether the media outlet is positive, neutral, or negative in nature, can leave you with less than desirable results. Here are some pitfalls that we Public Affairs professionals often see, and some advice on how you should approach any interview.
Be Honest With Yourself
Conducting an interview is not rocket science, which leads many people to believe that they are instantly good at it. After all, how many of us have conducted battalion or brigade meetings or briefed senior leaders on complex subjects? Media is different, and you don’t have as much latitude in your language as you may think you do. An offhanded comment or opinion you share may seem harmless, but it could end up being the focus of the article when it’s written, which is likely not the message you were there to communicate. Be brutally honest with yourself about how many interviews you have conducted and ensure that you have others critique your performances. Your PAO, who should be working with you on any interview, has seen far more than you probably have on how interviews have been a success or failure.
Every once in a while, there is a leader that is so confident and comfortable with the media that they make it look effortless. They are unicorns – do not assume you are one of them. Most general officers, and especially the ones who do interviews well, do a lot of preparation ahead of their interview. This may be as simple as reviewing talking points or as involved as running mock interviews several times before an engagement, and is something recommended for even the most skilled individuals accustom to conducting interviews frequently.
Understand Your Environment
Not every interview is alike, and some require different skills than others. How long will the interview be? Will it be a live video shoot, a voice recording, or a reporter taking notes? How long will it be? Can you get questions ahead of time (always nice if it’s possible, but be prepared that many outlets will only share a focus for the discussion)? Who is the reporter? What have they done on the subject before? What is important for you to communicate based on the needs of your organization (this is an important question for a negative interview)? This is by no means a comprehensive list, and every situation is different, but understanding the situation will be key to having a better interview experience. These are the questions you should be asking your Public Affairs Officer (PAO). If they don’t know the answers to these questions when they prepare you, send them back to do their job.
Have a Plan
Ask yourself, would you conduct a military operation without a plan? If the answer is no, and it had better be, ask yourself why you would go into any interview without doing the same due diligence? Like every operation, each interview requires a different level of preparation. The first thing you should do is ask what you want to achieve with this interview. If you can’t answer that, you may want to reconsider the engagement. Treat the media interview similarly to a job interview. You should have a main idea. Take that main idea, your key message, and have three supporting points behind it. You need to look at these and ask yourself if the audience will care about it. Remember, your audience is not you, and may have different priorities and understanding of the subject being discussed.
This goes for both positive and negative interviews. If you are calling attention to work that one of your Soldiers is doing in the community, you will probably want to try to show how the Army helps instill the values that encourage such actions in its Soldiers. If you are discussing something negative, the same preparation is required. If a Soldier is arrested, you want to ensure that there is distance put between that person’s actions and the organization as a whole, and that any investigation is being handled seriously. In these negative situations, media is most interested in understanding what happened and what’s being done to prevent a negative situation from happening again in the future. If you’re able to address this, without compromising the investigation process, and emphasize your organization’s core values, this goes a long way towards putting an issue to bed.
Still think you shouldn’t have a plan? Your last question in nearly every interview will be “is there anything you would like to add?” The answer to that question is YES! Even if you think you have nailed the interview, this is the time to go back to that plan and hammer home your main idea again. This should be a softball question that has a canned answer, carefully and effectively delivered.
While there is no hard and fast rule as to how long an answer should be, the target is 8 to 10 seconds – that’s not a lot of time. You will want to deliver the answer, pause momentarily, and then provide a supporting story or vignette for the message you just delivered. Especially in taped interviews, much of what you say will be edited out. The reporter is looking for a sound bite that encapsulates the issue, so be sure to have it available. This is the one you practice in the mirror.
Know How to Bridge
If there is one skill that you must master as an executive, it’s bridging. Bridging will enable you to shift the subject of a question back to your message, redirect an unfair or misleading question, or even correct a misconception that comes in the form of a question. It’s an agile mental exercise, and you have to be able to evaluate your answer, bridge, and message very quickly, but it is possible to practice and get very good at it. Some bridging phrases include the following:
What is important for the audience to understand is…
What this really means is…
In reality, what is really happening is…
You get the drift. Your key message is what you need to deliver after that phrase.
Practice and Then Practice Some More
Remember, you are probably not one of those unicorns, which means you need to work at this. The senior leaders I have worked with that were most successful with the media were the ones who took the practice seriously. They knew their strengths and shortcomings, and made up for them by being prepared with key facts, key statements that they planned to interject, or a good review of the background information that guided what they said. Their outcomes were consistently better than the officers who didn’t prepare or brushed the practice aside as an unnecessary waste of time.
Whether we are preparing for convoy defense or full-scale brigade operations, we practice. The best teams we have practice their craft religiously. The more time you invest for your interviews, the better the results. The point is not to spend all of your time preparing for every engagement to the detriment of other tasks, but that you maximize the results for your current engagement and put in the requisite time to become better at interviews in general. A challenging or controversial interview will undoubtedly take more time to prepare for than a positive one.
Set Realistic Expectations
Not every interview will be a high-stakes opportunity to move the needle on civil-military relations; all interviews have a range of potential results, but all should be seen as important. The worst thing that can probably happen with a positive subject (i.e. deployed unit returning home) is that there is no impact. This, unfortunately, is the most common result when the work beforehand is not done. Conversely, the best thing that may happen from a negative subject (i.e. a Soldier who commits a crime that ends up on the news), is that the damage to the organization is limited. Understand the range of possibilities and aim for the best you can do. Your preparation, planning, and practice should feed that best narrative.
Use Your PAO Wisely
Your PAO should be skilled in media interviews and interviewing techniques, and will be eager to assist you in working through these steps, preparing you for the engagement, monitoring your interview, and providing feedback on your performance. What they also have is a network of other PAOs that they can rely on when the stakes are high and additional assistance is beneficial for you and the organization.
Pause – and Evaluate
Be sure to pause a bit before each answer. It will give you a chance to organize your thoughts so that you can deliver a more effective answer. In addition, it will slow you down just a bit and make you seem less nervous. Pausing also helps you slow down if you talk fast like I do.
So… do your homework, prepare, and use the assets and people at your disposal. Success in interviews as a senior leader begets more opportunities for interviews and increases the influence you can have, both internally and in educating the American public about your organization. Good luck!
Col. Matthew Lawrence is a Public Affairs Officer assigned to the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official opinions or policies of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.
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