How to side step interview landmines

Profile interviews can be a great way to raise awareness of companies and brief stakeholders on strategy but there are pitfalls to avoid. Here are just five of them.

Microphone in Conference Seminar room Event Background

1. Unclear and jargon-filled responses

The style of journalists may differ significantly but all approach profile interviews with a clear idea of the content they need and how to get it.

This means they often like to warm up the interviewee with straightforward questions, including ‘what is your strategy for growing the business’ or ‘what is the biggest challenge facing your company’, before juicier ones, such as ‘would you consider taking the role at X rival?’ or ‘do you agree another profit warning could seal your fate’?

But in response to even the softest of questions some executives produce long-winded or jargon-filled answers that leave the journalist wondering if they know what they are talking about, have rehearsed it word-by-word or possibly moonlight in a call centre selling ‘state-of-the-art mobile-centric software solutions to transform the digital value chain’.

Try the table test: if you were to stand on a table in a bar or restaurant and espouse your views to the room, would the audience nod in approval, scratch their head in bemusement or laugh discreetly.


2. Setting too many ground rules

No one likes back seat drivers and the same applies to journalists. So executives and PR advisors should avoid trying to steer journalists rigidly down alleyways they have no intention of going down or writing about.

They should also avoid suggestions, such as ‘what your readers will want to know about is this’ or ‘You should really focus on X.’

These suggestions will only annoy the journalist. Far worse is when interviewees try to steer the interview rigidly, such as by insisting on talking them through each page of a PowerPoint presentation, as ‘this is fundamental to understanding our story’.

While digital recording devices may pick up the swooshing of PowerPoint pages, this is of little use for the journalist trying to fill a 1,500-word profile.

A good way to think about an interview is a conversation with a close acquaintance whose manner and views you don’t necessarily agree with but you will listen to without wanting to throttle them.


 3. Get side-tracked

Colourful PR advice for a profile interview involves two imaginary people walking down a hotel corridor: the interviewee wants to keep referring to the key messages (the paintings on the wall), while the journalist often wants to drag them off message (into the rooms).

Of course, this advice should not be followed too rigidly and you should be comfortable talking about a variety of topics. But if you spend half the interview espousing your views on the Government’s latest policies, for example, the interview is more likely to read like a political manifesto than an overview of the firm’s strategy.

If you do get temporarily side tracked, you should always try to politely bring the conversation back to your company and the reasons for doing the interview in the first place: such as raising awareness of your strategy among stakeholders.

Those who remain off-piste for much of the conversation could well find themselves not only ruing a missed opportunity but also becoming the topic of a lively conversation at the school gates or next dinner party.


4. Come across as defensive

How many times has a friend asked you a personal question which you declined to answer with a smile or cheeky comeback, such as your salary or the party you voted for in an election?

The point is that many people find it second nature easy to sidestep difficult questions in real life but feel strangely compelled to reveal all to a journalist.

It is a journalist’s job to ask difficult questions – it is not personal – but there are many ways to parry them without committing career suicide or being defensive.

So if a company has recently issued two profit warnings then executives should acknowledge the weak performance before focusing on the progress being made.

In short, the last thing you should do is to become defensive and think the journalist is ‘out to get you’ and then go 15-rounds with them. You should also watch your tone of voice and body language.

Put simply, coming across as defensive is likely to get the reporters’ back up and lead to them twisting the knife in their article. As the old adage goes, the pen always wins.


5. Unfortunate elevator comment

You have completed a successful interview, made all the key points and even bonded with the journalist. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, a lot can and often does, as executives often make throwaway comments on sensitive subjects walking down the stairs or in the elevator.

These comments, such as on rivals or a toxic political issue, are the ‘colour’ that journalists look for and can easily end up being the main thrust or headline of the article – with potential significant reputational damage.

The interview is never over till it’s over and the journalist has vanished or you have turned your microphone off, as one former UK Prime Minister found to his detriment when describing a 65-year-old woman as ‘bigoted’ off camera.