In my 15-plus years as both a journalist and a public relations professional, I’ve been on both sides of the media relations coin. During my years, I’ve dealt with many reporters, editors and journalists. Most reporter or editor styles fall into five main buckets.
Here’s the five most common categories and interview/media relations techniques when encountering various types of reporters.
Lieutenant Columbo - This reporter plays dumb. Asking seemingly off-point questions and in a matter-of-fact fashion, this throws you a zinger that eventually pulls together all the information. Never let this type of reporter lull you to sleep. Here are some points to keep in mind if a Lieutenant Columbo comes your way:
- Be alert at all times. Stay engaged in the interview even if it seems harmless and off-beat.
- Control what questions you answer. If a question is off point, say it’s off point and get back on track. Keep the interview on the course in which it is intended.
- Ask your own off-beat questions. It never hurts to try and turn the tables. You may uncover an interesting scoop or personal tidbit that can be used at a later date.
Silencer – Silence is the golden ticket for this reporter. He or she asks very few questions – if any. After your responses, you receive no reaction – positive or negative: a true poker face. You really don’t know where this reporter is headed with his/her story or how the information you are providing in the interview will be used. Here are some techniques when you are interviewing with the Silencer type:
- Ask questions – Try and pull out of the reporter the angle he/she is taking with the story, especially before the interview begins.
- Speak in very short answers – Answer only what is asked or what you want to say. Do not over-answer or ramble because that is exactly what this technique instinctively makes an interviewee do. Force the reporter to ask more pointed questions and share information he/she has already gathered for the story.
- Talk about recent coverage or current events. Many times this strategy helps the reporter to open up and sheds some insight into his/her interests.
Airheads – These are reporters that clearly haven’t done their homework or they are tackling a topic that is too big. They ask questions when the answers are in plain view. And, sometimes, they get their facts wrong due to poor attention to detail. Here are some pointers to tackle the Airheads:
- Be patient. These encounters can be frustrating, but try not to lose your cool. Frustration can sometimes lead to bad press.
- See an opportunity to educate. Provide a lot of background and context during these interviews. Be very clear, repeat important points and facts.
- Heavy follow-up is required. Work closely with this reporter as he/she formulates and writes the story. It can be an opportunity to have more share-of-voice and greater presence.
Garbage Picker – Beware of in-person interviews with this reporter. He/she is more of the investigative-type and will not stop at calling every contact to confirm a hot nugget/scoop. They are very observant, overly nosy and may show up unannounced. Here’s some techniques on how to tackle the Garbage Picker:
- Put away all confidential information. These folks have been known to read information upside-down and backwards. Maintain a clean desk and hide your notes, texts and emails.
- Stay on message. Any little tidbit could be become the center focus. Refrain from gossip, color commentary or opinions. Remain straightforward and unemotional – especially with your body language.
- Cast reasonable doubt. Poke holes in what could be gossip tidbits. Provide facts and truths that cannot be ignored. Throw water instead of lighter fluid to ensure if something is written it will be a camp fire not a forest fire.
Frenemy – These are the socialites. The journalists that want to be your friend. These are the people who like to party and have fun. They are kind, fair and enjoy the relationship part of the business. These are folks who may be PR people one day. Here are some tips to help you build a good relationship with the Frenemy:
- Approach with non-business related opportunities. Continue to build a personal relationship with these journalists. Find reasons to connect other than business.
- Brainstorm story ideas. These journalists want to talk about ideas and get several different perspectives. You can be very influential.
- Remember these folks are reporters. It is important to remain professional and make sure everything you say you wouldn’t mind seeing published.
There are also chameleons out there. Those morph several of these tactics together – changing his/her approach daily. Hopefully, you now have the tools to switch gears and be a successful media relations professional or interviewer.
—Leah Haran is a vice president at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.