Advice for Media Interviews
by Michael Farris Jr. • July 28, 2016
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I’ll never forget that sinking feeling when I read the hit piece against HSLDA . . . the hit piece that included a direct quote from me. I had just been appointed as HSLDA’s media relations representative, and we were starting to publicize our work on the Romeike case in order to help the family gain asylum in the United States. About four days into my new job, the phone rang.
“Hi, this is Sally Kohn with Salon.com, and I’m calling about the Romeike story,” said the nice woman on the other end of the line. I was somewhat familiar with Salon and its ideological bent, but I knew from my days in journalism school that being turned down isn’t much fun, so I tried to help her as best I could. She asked how the Romeikes were able to legally stay in the United States, and while I had been told they were here legally, I didn’t know the exact circumstances that allowed them to stay. I let her know this, then told her I would get the real answer and call her back, which I did. After I finished the second call, I thought we were in the clear. Until I read her article.
Here’s my quote in the article, entitled “Glenn Beck’s Favorite Immigrants”:
It’s worth pausing here to look at the legal status under which the Romeike family originally entered the United States in 2008. Since news reports on the subject were vague, I contacted the Home School Legal Defense Association for clarification. “Yeah, um, you know I’m not entirely sure,” media relations representative Michael Farris Jr. told me. “I was just told to basically say that their current legal status is good.”
Ouch. But, to give Ms. Kohn credit, she did mention that I called back with the real answer . . . only after she included the part of the conversation that established me as a know-nothing and put me on display. And I am forever grateful for this early crash course in media relations, because it taught me the valuable lessons to be careful with my words and don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, let me call you back.”
Of course, those are just a few of the many bits of advice that I’d like to share with you now to help you navigate the sometimes perilous waters of media interviews.
Be nice and treat reporters like people. Reporters do a lot of work and don’t make much money for it. People highly distrust the media and feel the media is out to get them, so it’s likely that the reporters you interact with are being treated poorly by just about everyone they talk to. What they lack in income, they try to make up for with the respect they earn. So if you treat them with respect, it’s more likely than not that they’ll at least feel bad for smearing you in an article. It’s even more likely that they will give you the benefit of the doubt and present your argument fairly, even if they disagree.
Respond promptly. Chances are that the reporter who contacts you is being bugged by his or her editor to get the story ready, so the faster you respond, the better your rapport is for future interviews.
Do some background research on who you’re talking to. Certain media outlets have clear political leanings. If you’re contacted by Salon, Slate, Vox, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones, etc., it’s pretty likely that they won’t be on your side of homeschool freedom issues. Does that mean you should decline the interview? It’s always an option, but the reporter will mention that you did so, and this looks like you have something to hide. Instead, do your research. It doesn’t take long to search a media outlet’s website for previous reports they may have published or broadcast on your interview topic. It’s also easy to find the reporter contacting you on Twitter to see what kinds of articles they are writing and the thoughts they are tweeting to get an idea of where they’ll be coming from.
During the interview, try to speak in terms that reflect the reporter’s point of view. For example, if you’re being interviewed by a liberal-leaning media outlet about proposed homeschool regulations, you could explain that homeschoolers are a minority group and that the regulations would be unjust and oppressive.
On the flip side, if you’re being contacted by the Blaze, The Federalist, Fox News, RedState, Breitbart, etc., it’s likely they will be on your side of the issue—but you should still research who you’re talking to and be very careful what you say in the interview. The outlets mentioned two paragraphs ago love to sift through right-leaning news sources for quotes that they think are worth mocking.
Be accurate. Here’s how Torie Clarke, former press secretary for Donald Rumsfeld, puts it in her book Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game:
This rule goes above and beyond the obvious tenet to tell the truth. Don’t quote a number unless you’re sure about it. If you name a name, make sure you’ve got the right one. Don’t expect a reporter to have the time or inclination to check your facts. Do the job yourself so you don’t have to clean things up later. If you’re not sure, say so. If you want a reporter to have some facts, don’t guess.
You know how many press secretaries it takes to screw in a lightbulb, don’t you? Can I get back to you on that? It is OK to say exactly that to a reporter, but then follow up—quickly. If you can be fast and accurate—and in most cases, you should be able to—do so. If the choice is between responding quickly and responding accurately, choose accuracy.
Definitely could have used this advice when I talked to the Salon reporter.
Tell the truth. This should go without saying, but in this day and age of spin versus the search engine, the search engine is usually going to win.
You can give a truthful answer while still supporting your side. For example, if you’re being asked about child abuse in homeschooling, it’s OK to be truthful about your feelings: “Hearing about child abuse cases makes me absolutely sick and angry that anyone could do such things to children; I agree that something needs to be done about it.” We can be honest about the reality of child abuse without agreeing that homeschool regulations are needed to prevent it. We might go on to say, “But in school, kids are bullied by their peers and abused by their teachers, and sometimes their only hope is to be removed and homeschooled. Why would we support legislation that further burdens those children? Instead, we should ensure that our public servants have the tools available to stop abuse everywhere, whether it’s in a public, a private, or a home school.”
Don’t act like you know more than the reporter. Nobody likes a showoff. Talk like you’re in a conversation in which the reporter is asking questions, not a lecture. While it’s almost certainly true that you know more than reporters do about your area of expertise, if you treat them like children, they will be only too happy to turn on you, ask leading questions, and sit back and watch you dig a deeper hole for yourself.
Be the better person in the room. Never, ever lose your cool with a reporter or interviewer, because you’ll be remembered for it, and not in a good way.
If it feels like the reporter is attacking you, respectfully show what he or she isn’t saying about the issue. Saying “You’re wrong” or “You don’t understand” implies that the reporter is dumb. Try “What you’re not saying . . . ,” which implies that the reporter does know something but is choosing not to share it, and you’re simply calling the reporter out.
If you’re in a debate with someone on television or radio, or responding to a previous interview, be aware of who you’re talking to. If an expert in a field similar to yours is arguing against points you make, it’s fine to say the person is wrong or doesn’t understand, and one-liners and zingers don’t hurt either. But if the other person is someone with a personal stake in the issue—such as a homeschool graduate who supports regulations—be sympathetic toward his or her feelings while respectfully voicing your own opinion.
Invite the media into your “foster home.” Earlier this year I attended a seminar presented by the crisis communications director of Buckner International, a foster-care ministry. Because HSLDA represents homeschoolers as a group, we sometimes field questions from the media about child abuse in homeschooling families, and I figured that a foster-care ministry would face the same challenge. So I asked the crisis communications director what kind of messaging works to separate a brand from the bad apples in the bunch.
He told me that a few years ago, they had a foster home that was going to be featured on Dateline for not very good reasons. But instead of going to the studio and trying to separate themselves from child abusers, Buckner invited Dateline into one of their foster facilities to do the interview there. He said he could tell right away that when the crew and host walked into the facility, their preconceived notions about the place started to change. As the old journalism adage goes: show, don’t tell.