Keys to a Great Leader Interview

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If you’re trying to help leaders communicate effectively, it only makes sense to gain a better understanding of what makes them tick, as well as the experiences and mindset that they brings to their roles. 

Further, you want to be able to capture a leader’s voice – not only her style of speaking, but also her unique perspective on how she views the world.

Too often, communicators lack the information and insight they need to do that well. That’s likely because they really haven’t had the opportunity to get to know the leader in a truly meaningful way. 

The solution? Conduct a leader interview. I’ve often refer to this as “the Rolling Stone Interview” approach. Ideally, it’s a relaxed, far-ranging conversation with a leader that allows you to dig deeper into what he or she is all about. 

If you have a willing leader, there are some key benefits to this interview.  

For starters, it can strengthen your relationship. Through this conversation, you’re not only getting to know the leader better, but they are getting to know you—and hopefully gaining trust and confidence in your abilities to help them communicate effectively and more strategically. 

Beyond that, you get unmatched insight into their style and voice.  Some people are natural storytellers and understand how a good story can help amplify a point they are trying to make. Others take a more literal fact-driven approach to making their case. Getting a clear sense of this can help the leader communicate in ways that are more authentic.

I’d recommend conducting the interview somewhere the leader feels the most comfortable, and hopefully won’t be interrupted every five minutes. Some key ways to make the most of the conversation. 

  • Make your intentions clear: Let the leader know that the intent of this conversation is to get to know them better with the goal of gathering insights and background that will help them communicate better with a range of important audiences.

  • Do your homework: Like any good journalist, you should go into this interview well prepared. That means reading any background information and perhaps even talking to some people who know the leader well. During your research, look for anything that would be out of the ordinary that might be worth further exploration. For instance, if the leader of a nonprofit graduated with an electrical engineering degree that is some fertile ground to dig into.

  • Avoid any blindsides: It’s a good idea to send a list of prep questions ahead of time so that the leader has a good sense of the types of questions you’ll be asking, as well as some time to think about responses.

  • Don’t be afraid to veer off script: While prep questions are important, be open to following the conversation where the leader takes you. I’ve been in situations in which the person leading the interview is so focused on sticking to the prepared questions, that they miss a golden opportunity for a simple follow-up question or two that might yield valuable insights. At the very least ask the simple question, why? as a tactic to get the leader talking in more depth. Another good follow-up is to ask if they can think of any stories that illustrate a point they just made.

As far as questions go, pepper the interview with several that will help the leader get out of corporate-speak mode. Here are a few that are worth considering. 

  • What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

  • What were the turning points in your career?

  • Who has had the biggest impact/influence on your life – and why?

  • Have you had career mentors, and what were the most lasting lessons learned?

  • What was the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career, and what did you learn from it?

  • What do you love to do when you’re not working?

  • Who are your heroes?

Once you’ve completed the interview, make sure you get it transcribed. You should have a strong resource to draw from when the leader needs to deliver a speech, make a presentation, or craft a great CEO letter.

Want to explore further ways to improve leadership communications? Shoot me an e-mail and let’s talk.

Why You Need an Online Newsroom

Photo courtesy of  Jürg Vollmer , via Flickr.

Photo courtesy of Jürg Vollmer, via Flickr.

As communications professionals, we spend a lot of time pitching stories and developing relationships with reporters.

But, sometimes, the news finds you.

Sometimes, a reporter you’ve never met who is working on a story you didn’t pitch will type a query into Google and land on your website.

Facing a tight deadline and needing a source, the reporter will need to find the information she needs — and fast.

Will your website — and your communications team — be ready to help?

For a surprising number of businesses and nonprofits, the answer to this question is, unfortunately, no.

Many organizations do not have a working, up-to-date online newsroom on their websites. Instead, they make it incredibly difficult for reporters to find key information and a live contact who can help them on deadline.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take a ton of effort to capture the attention of reporters on deadline.

By adding these five elements to your website, you’ll put your organization at the front of the line when reporters are searching for information—and greatly increase your chance of being a go-to source in the future:

1. An Easy-to-Find News Page

When reporters come to your site looking for information about an organization or a business, the first thing they typically look for is your “Newsroom” or “News” page.

This page should be easy to find — either through a direct link on your home page or, at the very least, through the “About Us” section.

If you don’t have a news page — or if she can’t find it — chances are she’s going to leave your site and go looking for an organization that does.

2. Contact information

Having a news page is a great start, but that page needs to be more than just a placeholder.

If you’re really serious about having her reach out with an inquiry, you should make it as easy as possible for her to do so by providing the name, e-mail address, and phone number of your media contact prominently on that page.

If you have a single spokesperson or point of contact, that should be easy to do.

If you are a larger organization with multiple spokespeople, provide a prominent link to another page that lists them and their contact information.

I suggest providing a way to reach an actual person — not a generic “contact” address that goes into a shared account that isn’t monitored regularly.

Reporters on deadline are looking to connect with someone quickly and they are more likely to reach out to a real person than to send a query into the ether.

You’d be surprised how many organizations — even very large ones — don’t make this easy for reporters.

If your organization provides it, you have an instant leg up on other groups that either overlook this step or choose to make it difficult for reporters to connect with them.

3. A News Feed

Let’s say the reporter wants to know a bit more about you before she picks up the phone or sends you an email.

You can help her by providing a feed of recent news releases and/or announcements.

This will help her get to know a bit more about who you are and what you do — and it might even provide her with some information about your organization that will make it into her reporting.

She might even luck out and find the information she needs in one of your existing news releases.

If she’s really squeezed for time, she might be able to use information directly from your release.

4. A Photo Gallery

Some savvy groups do more than provide contact information and a news feed on their websites.

They also include a photo library (or a link to a Flickr page) and make the images in that library available to media organizations.

They also provide instructions on how to credit and use these images.

While this isn’t practical for all organizations, it gives you yet another advantage when you’re vying for the attention of time- and resource-stretched reporters.

If our reporter knows that she can get a high-quality photo to accompany her story, you’ve found yet another way to provide useful information. What’s more, it might help you get a photo of your organization to go along with a mention or quote in the story — an incredibly valuable placement that will draw additional attention.

5. Your Numbers

Finally, if you’re looking to prove your credibility and show that your organization is transparent, it’s helpful to provide financial information on your site.

A growing number of nonprofits are including links to their recent Form 990s and audited financial reports on their sites — a move that shows donors, funders, and the media that you have nothing to hide and that your operations are above board.

Publicly traded companies can provide SEC filings or shareholder reports.

For our reporter who is deciding who to include in her story, having these numbers on your site sends a strong message that you’re legit — and it can also provide her with information that could help her verify information for her story.

Busy reporters on deadline are looking for the path of least resistance. If the news does end up finding you, make sure you’re ready. 

The Results Are In: You Don't Need Spin to Get Good Coverage

It’s easy to see how some PR pros fall into the trap of spinning a story when they’re vying for the attention of journalists.

After all, it’s not easy stand out in a competitive media market — a market that increasingly appears to value sensationalism over substance.

Back in my reporting days, it wasn’t uncommon to see releases that exaggerated research findings for the sake of a snappy headline, or ignored key data in order to make a point.

Unfortunately, this practice has only gotten worse.

But what if I told you that you don’t need to spin or hype to get your story told in the media? In fact, you have as good of a chance to get coverage if you stick to the facts — and that playing it straight will help advance your organization’s credibility and reputation at a critical time?

That’s the key takeaway from a research report that looks at how press releases about scientific research are covered by journalists.

While the finding that spin doesn’t pay should be encouraging to all of us who value the truth, other aspects of the research are troublesome. 

That’s because the report shows that many journalists merely report what’s spelled out in a news release about research.

In too many cases, journalists fail to dig into the research itself — relying on the headlines and takeaways highlighted in the release.

Brian Resnick, a reporter for Vox, summarizes the findings quite well:

“To be honest, the research on how scientific press releases translate to press coverage doesn’t make my profession look all that good. It suggests that we largely just repeat whatever we’re told from the press releases, for good or for bad,” Resnick writes. 

“It’s concerning. If we can’t evaluate the claims of press releases, how can we evaluate the merits of studies (which aren’t immune to shoddy methods and overhyped findings themselves)?”

That’s where you come in.

As a PR professional, how you choose to present information in news releases is critical to how the story ultimately presented. You’re the first (and sometimes only) gatekeeper between the information that your organization is disseminating and what makes its way into news coverage.

And because this research suggests that spin is no more likely to get covered than straight facts, there should be no incentive to gin up your results in order to get covered.

This doesn’t mean you should make your releases boring or that you should refrain from emphasizing interesting angles.

Quite the contrary. 

Good, effective PR people do their organizations — and the journalists they work with — a favor when they can identify a newsworthy angle and tell a colorful story

In turn, they help the public better understand the world around them.

But we also have a responsibility to do it truthfully.

That’s really important these days, when it’s increasingly difficult to find truth from the mouths of our politicians and media outlets.

That gives you a lot of power — and a lot of responsibility.

Use it wisely.

When a Crisis Hits, Don't Panic. Have a Plan


In a today's media world, speed is critical.

To effectively spread the word about your work, you need more than a strong message. You also need to be able to deploy this message to the right people at the right time.

If you move too slowly, you will miss opportunities to gain attention and change minds.

And if your organization is at the center of a controversy, the inability to respond quickly can have disastrous consequences.

If you’re slow footed, you’ll lose customers or donors. You’ll also risk damaging your hard-earned reputation.

But you can take advantage of breaking-news opportunities and respond promptly to crises if you plan ahead.

One way to do this is to create a rapid response protocol.

A rapid response protocol will give your organization the process and the tools it needs to take advantage of breaking news opportunities or prepare for an unexpected crisis.

If done well, your protocol will also include some pre-written talking points and key messages that you can grab and use during fast-moving news events.

Here are some of the key questions we ask when we help organizations develop rapid response protocols:

Who are your designated spokespeople?

When news breaks, you need to have the right people prepared to speak on your behalf. Figure out who those people are ahead of time -- rather than when the bullets are flying.

Some organizations choose one person as a key spokesperson. Others have a trusted group that might include the executive leadership, board members, the head of communications or other key leaders.

No matter your approach, make sure you know that you can reach at least one of your spokespeople on short notice and that they are well equipped to speak about your organization and its work.

Which issues do we care about most?

If your organization is looking to take advantage of events in the news, it's important to spend some time discussing the types of issues you care most about. By doing this you'll be able to create filters and alerts that will help you identify opportunities quickly.

It will also help you develop draft pitches ahead of time that you can customize and deploy on the fly.

What are your key messages?

Your rapid response protocol should include a handful of key messages that connect with the issues your organization cares about and that convey your values and mission.

These messages become the raw materials for written statements and social media postings -- and can serve as a guide for your spokespeople if they're speaking to reporters.

And, by working through them ahead of time, you can cut down on the amount of time that's needed to get approvals for news releases and written statements.

Who are your highest priority media targets?

You don't want to waste time deciding which media members and outlets need to be contacted.

Develop a short list of your highest-valued media members and spend time cultivating relationships with these reporters and editors.

These relationships will be incredibly valuable when events are moving quickly.

What is your process for releasing information?

Who has to sign off on written statements, news releases and social media postings? Is there a way to ensure that you can get these approvals quickly during crises or breaking news opportunities?

It's important to talk through this process ahead of time to make sure you're not stuck later.

If you need to wait on a your board chair to approve a statement, for example, you might get stuck if she's away or he has his phone turned off at his daughter's dance recital.

Work through what happens if a key decision maker is unavailable. You might need to give multiple people the authority to approve what's released publicly -- or to flatten your process to ensure that there are no hold ups.

What resources do we need?

Some organizations do not have the resources in house to respond quickly to breaking news.

If this is the case, you might need to have a consultant or agency who can enlist work on your behalf. It's important to identify that resource ahead of time -- rather than scrambling to find someone during a crisis.


Once you've answered these questions, it's important to put your protocol in writing and ensure that it is in the hands of the right people.

Some organizations identify a rapid response team that can deploy during breaking news events.

Each member of this team should have a copy of the protocol -- as well as a list of email addresses and cell phone numbers for people they need to connect with quickly.

Finally, it's important to make sure your protocol is reviewed regularly to ensure that your key messages are up-to-date, your spokespeople are prepared, and your media list is up-to-date.