Some years ago (actually several decades ago), this writer was meeting with some communications professionals at a well known, high-tech firm in Dallas. The firm had a full-time position that focused solely on media research. A woman who held that position spent her time monitoring what was being said about the company in the news media. Before the company would agree to or do a media interview, she would review how the news outlet, and particularly how the reporter, had covered the company in the past.
Our guess is that today, that kind of position is a luxury and a rarity – even in the largest of corporations. But it does serve to remind us that doing some due diligence before a media interview is a smart thing.
Often, it’s someone in the communications function – someone who may know the reporter, is familiar with the reporter’s style, or does some research on the reporter – who provides the interviewee with some valuable background information before the interview takes place. In smaller organizations, the person being interviewed may have to handle this responsibility. Regardless of who does the due diligence, here are some tips on the why and how.
Due diligence generally helps you answer these three questions:
- Should I do the interview?
- Should I do the interview with a particular reporter?
- What should I know about the reporter who’ll be interviewing me?
Should I do the interview?
Many factors go into deciding whether to do an interview, and we won’t go into detail here. But often the news outlet itself – whether broadcast or print – is a prime consideration. We have clients who simply will not go on Sixty Minutes. They feel they will not be treated fairly and cannot win. Other clients feel similarly about FOX News and MSNBC. Also, print journalism has publications that cause fear: The New York Times, National Review, and others, including those counterculture, free-of-charge, weekly tabloids found in some major cities.
Before deciding whether or not to participate, evaluate each news outlet in terms of its importance (to you and your communications objectives), credibility and reputation, and reach (circulation or viewership).
What about the reporter?
Expect reporters to do their homework before interviewing you. You might want to do some homework of your own. But keep in mind that there are times when it’s neither possible nor appropriate to do any research on the reporter. For example, if you get an unexpected call or visit from a reporter doing a routine story, there’s probably no reason or way to learn anything about the reporter’s background. So the following advice deals with situations where the reporter’s background matters:
- Go to the news outlet’s website to read the reporter’s bio. Key in on educational background, experience, awards won, and most importantly, what position the reporter currently holds. For example, is he or she a general assignment reporter? An investigative or consumer reporter? A beat (specialty) reporter – if so, what beat? However, recognize that these websites are carefully crafted; you’re not likely to see anything unflattering.
- Generalizations are dangerous things. But we think there’s a little bit of activist in every reporter. What they advocate depends on their background and personal circumstances. Journalists are people after all, and it’s tough not to bring your personal views into your professional life. So…..
- Checking social media is crucial. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media platforms are mirrors to reporters’ souls and forums for venting. If a reporter has a potentially damaging agenda, most likely it will be reflected in one of their profiles. And if you”re active on social media, especially sites like LinkedIn, or industry forums or blogs, pose a question about others’ experiences with the reporter.
- Do a Google search on the reporter. Look for whether the reporter has been involved in any reporting-related disputes, including litigation. Has the reporter “reinvented” himself – i.e., become a different kind of reporter than he was in a previous media market or assignment?
- Review some of the stories the reporter has done. What’s the reporter’s general style or tone? (Larry King had a reputation for asking “softball” questions. Bill O’Reilly interrupts constantly.) We prepared one of our clients to face Lesley Stahl for a Sixty Minutes interview. Her story was environment related, so we showed the client several similar stories she had done in the past to provide an example of Stahl’s style. It was quite predictable – similar kinds of questions, similar facial expressions and other body language, similar reactions to interviewees’ responses.
- Have a pre-interview discussion with the reporter. You can learn a lot about the reporter’s knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the subject. That can be helpful during the interview. It’s also an opportunity to provide some “teasers” – bits of compelling information the reporter may ask you to elaborate on during the interview. Caution: Consider this pre-interview discussion to be on-the-record; the reporter certainly sees it that way.
Perhaps the best advice we can offer comes from the Boy Scouts motto: “Be prepared.”