If you work in media relations, one of your biggest fears involves watching the leader of your organization get flustered by a reporter or stumble in front of a TV camera.
But while even the most experienced interview subject gets tripped up by a tough question from time to time, you can avoid most media missteps by making sure your subject is fully prepared.
Every time a subject is speaking with the media, that person should be equipped with a clear sense of what they should say.
That's why whenever we schedule interviews for our clients, we create a briefing memo.
This document gives the interview subject an opportunity to prepare for the interview ahead of time -- and provides a sense of comfort.
Our briefing memos follow a common format, which makes it easy for our team to generate them quickly (which is especially useful when you're preparing for an interview that is being conducted on a short deadline).
Here's what our memos include:
Each memo starts with sentence or two that provides high-level information about the media opportunity -- including the name of the reporter(s), the media outlet he or she represents, and why the opportunity is important.
Timeline and Location
It's helpful to include the most vital information near the top of your memo for quick reference.
Our memos always include the location of the interview (including the street address and any important directions). If your interview subject is meeting with a reporter in his or her newsroom, make sure you not only provide the address of the news outlet, but you provide information about what to do when the subject arrives.
We also include a detailed timeline, including when to leave for the meeting, who is accompanying the subject to the meeting, and how to contact both the reporter and anyone from your team who might be joining.
For phone interviews, we include information about who is calling who, the expected duration of the call, and whether it will be recorded.
Next, we detail the format for the interview -- spelling out whether it will be one-on-one or with a group or editorial board.
We also detail the objective of the interview. In some cases, the objective might be to help land a feature story, or to provide opinion or context for a story the reporter is already working on. In other cases, it might be to meet with the editorial board of a newspaper to persuade the paper to take a stand on an important issue.
Here's an excerpt from a recent briefing memo we put together for an expert source who was meeting with a reporter at The Wall Street Journal: "Unless otherwise agreed, this meeting will be considered on the record, but will be informational in nature. Our expectation is that it will position you as a key source and that it will spawn future opportunities for coverage."
Once we've established the ground rules and the format, we provide 2-4 key messages for the interview subject. These messages are usually quite specific and correlate to a set of talking points.
If you're looking to promote a new program or raise awareness about a key issue, this is where you can provide some focused advice to your subject on what he or she should be focusing on -- and how to direct the conversation.
Background on the reporter/outlet
It always helps the interview subject to have as much information as possible about the reporter(s) involved in the interview.
We generate short bios of the reporters, along with links to some of their recent stories so the subject can get a sense of who they are talking to and how they typically approach their work.
When possible, we include a photo to put a face on the reporter (which is especially helpful when you're meeting for the first time in public).
This background information usually helps put the subject at ease (and in some cases helps prepare them for tough questions).
We also aim to provide a list of questions/topics that we expect the reporter to focus on during the interview.
Often, we try to gain as much information as we can from the reporter ahead of time to get a sense of what he or she is interested in covering and supplement what we learn by reading their recent coverage of similar topics and, when appropriate, information from a pitch that we've developed on the topic.
While we have a general format for our briefings, you can develop a format that works best for your team. The most important thing, though, is to make sure you do everything you can to prepare your spokespeople for every interview.
This will help ensure you're conveying the right message -- and that you're ready for tough questions when they come.
Keep in mind that this is just one way to set up a briefing memo.
You might choose a different format, based on the needs and preferences of the people you work with.
But it's important to make sure you're taking steps to fully prepare your subjects ahead of time.
A little preparation now will save you a lot of headaches later!