How to handle media interviews

BEFORE HE left for the Asean Summit in Laos, President Duterte gave a short speech after which a Reuters reporter asked how he would respond if US President Barack Obama would lecture him about the extrajudicial killings in his war on drugs. Mr. Duterte got fired up and said: “Wala akong pakialam sa kanya. Who is he? I do not have any master except the Filipino people. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions and statements. P*tang ina, I will curse you in that forum.” He then went into a rant and lobbed expletives at Obama, calling the US president, in Filipino, that “son of a bitch.”

There were only five reporters in the room when Mr. Duterte was asked the question, but the global media broadcast his biting tirade swiftly to all corners of the world. As a result, Obama canceled a scheduled bilateral meeting with Mr. Duterte, and while Obama said later that he did not take the latter’s rude comments personally, the Philippines may have lost many relationship opportunities with the United States, among others.

On hindsight, Mr. Duterte and all administration officials and spokespersons should have taken a course in media training at the very start of their tenure, in order to avoid unwarranted negative stories in the press. For instance, Mr. Duterte did not have to answer the question of the Reuters reporter. He could have said: “That is a hypothetical question and it has not happened. I wouldn’t want to speculate.” Reporters understand there are questions that need not be answered, such as third-party questions, competitive questions, personal questions, questions that require figures, and questions about security and legalities.

It is easy to blame a journalist for biased reporting, which does happen from time to time. But often, the story is due to the interviewee’s lack of understanding about how the media work. A misquote is when a reporter makes up words that you didn’t say. It is deliberately taking your intent out of context with some sort of agenda. However, you are not a misquote victim if a journalist takes part of what you say and uses it in a story. If you say something ridiculous during the interview and the journalist quotes you saying that, then that is not a misquote.

A media training course is the best way to avoid interview booboos. You acquire skills in handling the media and how to develop positioning statements. The course is interlaced with skillful interview strategies for message development. Part of the course includes a videotaped interview session conducted by a professional broadcast journalist. Every participant is exposed to the local media interview formats and is given constructive, on-the-spot feedback that guarantees almost immediate improvement.

Here are a few tips to ensure an effective media interview:

  1. Be comfortable. Have a chat with the reporter before the interview to break the ice. Make sure you know what you want to talk about and what issues you think will be raised by the reporter, and know how you will respond to them clearly and concisely.
  2. Everything you say in the interview is for the record. There is no such thing as an “off the record” statement. Assume that every word you say to a reporter can and will be attributed to you because that’s the job of the media.
  3. You are always “on air” when in front of the media. Always assume the camera is on you, so be careful about your behavior, body language, and tone of voice. Avoid distracting movements like picking your nose, scratching your neck, or swinging both hands like a juggler. Never cross your arms as it makes you look defensive.
  4. Do not ramble. The more longwinded your answers are, the harder it is for the reporter to follow, and that creates more chances for mistakes.
  5. Keep your answers short even when you want to elaborate. Remember, the average soundbite is only 10-20 seconds long, so be clear and concise.
  6. Remain detached and unemotional if the reporter appears hostile. If you blow your cool, you put yourself in the hands of the interviewer. Pause, breathe in slowly, and answer without showing any emotion.
  7. Don’t curse, don’t raise your voice, and avoid slurs and offensive language. Strive to be politically correct.
  8. If you are not sure of your answer, buy time or refer the inquiry to the rightful person. Never try to play like an expert in someone else’s field.
  9. Don’t speculate. Reporters are obsessed with the future. They will throw you a question such as “What would happen if…” This is risky ground for the interviewee who will either become angry or comment on a subject he or she is poorly prepared for.
  10. Don’t repeat the negative. Journalists will sometimes use negative phrases in their questions, and very often the interviewee repeats the negative language. For example, the reporter may say: “It must be disappointing that President Obama did not meet with you at the Asean Summit. Are you disappointed?” And the interviewee might answer: “Well, I wouldn’t say exactly that I was disappointed.” The journalist’s negative language can now be attributed to you.

Media training can be highly effective in helping you develop the skills to get your message across accurately and with impact. And when you are an effective spokesperson, the media will return to you again and again for expert commentary in your area of expertise. You obviously need to rehearse and put time and training into the media interview process, so don’t go into such encounters blindly. But at the same time, don’t let the fear of being misquoted keep you on the sidelines.

Charlie Agatep is chair and CEO of Grupo Agatep, an integrated marketing communications agency. He was for many years a PR, journalism and mass communications professor at the University of Santo Tomas, and was also president of the Public Relations Society of the Philippines.