By Susan Shelby, FSMPS, CPSM, President & CEO of Rhino PR
For firms pursuing a new project, an interview with a potential client is a welcome invitation. The marketing department kicks into gear to prepare the project team, who are constantly honing their interview skills to win new work. Presenting your firm’s qualifications in a client interview may be stressful, but the team knows what to expect.
Faced with a press interview, many AEC professionals get anxious about discussing the same topics and material – but only because they don’t know what to expect. Rest assured: If a reporter has requested a phone call or accepted your offer for a site visit or in-person meeting, you can feel fairly certain that they are interested in speaking with you. By decoding the press interview process, you can prepare and deliver your firm’s information with the same success. Here are some pointers.
Before the interview
- Know your audience. Familiarize yourself with the publication and its target audience, and read past articles by the reporter or freelance writer. What issues or trends do they write about? Do some light homework so you know who you are speaking with: Check the publication’s web site for writer bios and run a Google or LinkedIn search since many freelance writers work for a variety of publications.
- Ask questions – before the interview. Inquire about the kind of story the reporter is writing (is it a trend piece, case study, or executive profile, for example?) and what information you are being requested to provide during the interview. Some writers will forward a list of questions or topics prior to an interview. Also, ask the writer if he/she needs background information in advance of your interview.
- Think about your key messages. Come to the interview with three strong messages that you would like to see in the article or hear on a broadcast, and hone them down to a concise sentence for each. Make them as positive as possible, and remember to repeat them more than once. Your messages should appeal to the publication’s readers. Why is the project interesting? Explain a project’s challenges and solutions, and what sets your firm’s approach apart from others in the marketplace. What are the key differentiators you hope to convey about your firm? Know your facts inside and out, or have a fact sheet in front of you during the conversation.
During the interview
- Anticipate difficult questions. Map them out before the call and consider how you might respond. Pause before answering and give yourself a moment to think about a reply. If you don’t understand the question, it’s reasonable to ask for clarification. This is also a good technique to give yourself time to think.
Make sure you know what you want to say and then give a solid answer. Always respond truthfully and accurately, and never lie! If a reporter asks a question that you cannot or would rather not address, do not say “no comment.” Soften your response by prefacing it with “I’m sorry” or “unfortunately,” and briefly provide a reason. For example, if you’re asked about the project cost, you could answer: “Unfortunately, the client has asked us not to disclose the project cost.” If you don’t know the response to a question, admit it and offer to check on it and call back. Talk about what you do know. Assume everything you say is “on the record,” so if you don’t want it included in an article, don’t say it.
- Keep your answers short. Listen to the reporter’s entire question before responding, and keep your replies brief. Shorter answers are always better than long-winded ones. Explain your story or project in a concise and interesting way, and don’t ramble. It is helpful to pause occasionally and ask the reporter, “Does that make sense to you?” to check that you are on the same page – and to give yourself a second to catch your breath. If the reporter has a follow-up question, they’ll ask. If something stated by the interviewer is slightly off, gently correct them so they don’t have to issue a correction later. If you are speaking with a non-technical reporter, avoid industry jargon and acronyms, and be sure to define concepts that are new to the writer. How you talk with a reporter for ENR might be very different from one at a local paper.
- Stay relaxed – it’s a conversation! Your body language and tone of voice can convey your discomfort, so remember this is not an interrogation. The reporter is genuinely interested in what you have to say – they did call you, right? – so take a deep breath and smile. Avoid reading directly from your notes: follow an outline instead of writing out what you are planning to say word-for-word. You will sound more natural and look more confident if you can speak directly to a reporter in a conversational tone.
After the interview
- Remember to follow up. If you promised to follow up with the reporter to provide an answer or additional information, be sure to do so as soon as possible. This is especially important if a reporter is on deadline and waiting for a photo from you.
- Acknowledge and appreciate their time. Reporters have limited time to research, conduct interviews, and write articles, so thank them for their attention and time spent with you. At the end of the conversation, encourage the reporter to email or call back if any clarification is needed.
Keep in mind that the reporter will not provide you with the article to review before it is published. Reporters rely on you to convey accurate and insightful information on topics you know, but the article is theirs to write. That is the way third-party validation of the press works. An interview that has gone well – and results in an enlightened and educated writer – will produce quality journalism in which you’ll be proud to be quoted.
About the author
Susan Shelby, FSMPS, CPSM is the president and CEO of Rhino Public Relations, a full-service PR and marketing agency focused on meeting the unique needs of professional services firms. Rhino PR offers customized services based on each individual client’s goals and budget. Susan received the 2016 SMPS Boston Marketing Professional of the Year Award, which honors marketing excellence in the A/E/C industry. Follow her @RhinoPRBoston or visit www.rhinopr.com for more information about how Rhino can help you take charge of your PR.