"HARNESS" column - March 2005

Ten Tips for Talking to Journalists

"I've been asked to give a press interview on behalf of a leather/ bear event. Do you have any advice?"

We all know stories about journalists who twist what people say or make stuff up to make their articles more interesting. Fortunately there are ways you can minimise a negative outcome. Here are ten ways you can give a smarter interview:

  1. Know what you're going to say in advance.
    Write down on one side of a piece of paper all the points you need to get across in the interview and memorise them. If you're conducting the interview by phone or email have the piece of paper in front of you and cross off each point as you include it in an answer. The interview is a waste of time if you forget to mention what you're there to promote.

  2. Prepare some short, funny, inoffensive anecdotes to pad out the interview.
    Preferably something you have not said publicly before, so that it has a feeling of exclusivity. No journalist wants to write an article that is just a publicity piece for your event. They want to add a bit of colour to find the "real you".

  3. Give short answers, no more than 3 sentences per reply, then shut up and smile.
    Practise giving short answers to tough questions. The longer you ramble on the more chance the journalist will cut your answer down to the three most controversial sentences. Even if you don't think you've said anything bad, cut down answers taken out of context can be very damaging and you won't be able to complain because it's all on tape and you did say those things!

  4. Always wait for a question before you answer.
    Some journalists talk for a bit and then stop without asking a question, in the hope that you will naturally fill the silence but be so distracted that you'll say anything. If you don't hear a question politely ask: "Sorry, what was the question again?"

  5. Is the question too broad or open-ended?
    It's impossible to answer a question such as "So, tell me about the leather community?" in less than 3 sentences. (The correct answer to that question is "What would you like to know?") Don't be scared to say: "I'm sorry, that's too broad a question to answer in the time we have for this interview. Please could you be more specific?"

  6. There is no such thing as "confidential" or "off the record".
    Even if they turn off their recording device don't get fooled into saying something negative or controversial to a journalist. Of course, you can use this to your advantage by waiting for an "off the record" moment to say something that you actually want in print! Just be aware that your name will ALWAYS be attributed to the remark eventually.

  7. You don't have to answer the question that's been asked.
    I've lost count of the number of times I asked someone: "Why did you say that in an interview?" and the reply was "Because they asked me...!" If you don't want to answer a question, politely decline and then smile. If the question arrived by email feel free to rewrite it. Better still, find a way to give them an answer which puts across one or two of the points from your list instead.

  8. Don't mention anyone or any event in your answers that hasn't given their consent. Even if the comment is true.
    Stick to promoting the event or organisation that asked you to do the interview on your behalf, and make the rest of your anecdotes about you alone. No one wants an unauthorised individual doing PR for them.

  9. Never talk to a journalist while you are tired, stressed, bitter or angry.
    If you need to let off steam, find a close friend who will keep it confidential and do it in private. Otherwise you'll only say something you regret and have to do a damage limitations exercise afterwards.

  10. Never tell a journalist you've had media training or lots of practise answering interview questions.
    That's like telling a cannibal you've spent the last three weeks marinating in barbecue sauce! Better to pretend that you have no idea what you're doing. Let them underestimate you. That way if you screw up you have more chance of being allowed a correction before it goes to print.

Good luck! If it all goes horribly wrong try to charm the journalist into making one or two changes before the print deadline. If that doesn't work tell the event or organisation that booked you for the interview. If they have paid for an advertisement in the publication they will have more leverage with the editor than you do.

Best wishes,

John Pendal
International Mr Leather 2003

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