Daniel Burstein

Public Relations: 5 interview mistakes that drive journalists crazy (and how to avoid them)

January 20th, 2012

I remember you wrote about press releases from the viewpoint of the publication/writer. I think you could write a similar one, for the subject of an interview. What do journalist look for when they interview someone for an article, case study, how-to etc.?

I recently received the above question, and I think the answer could be helpful to many marketers as they reach out to the traditional press, websites and bloggers to promote their products and services through those extremely valuable “earned mentions.”

Much of this blog post is going to skew a bit acerbic (hey, it’s human nature to complain about those who comically make your job more difficult), so I first wanted to let you know, and I’m sure many journalists feel the same way, that I genuinely love interviewing you.

And not just for work. At a party or on an airplane, I’m naturally curious about what people do for a living and always want to learn more. I’ve learned an invaluable amount of in-depth information about various industries and jobs from the interviews I’ve conducted, and on a personal note, have extremely enjoyed those discussions.

I know there can be a lot of pressure when you interview (especially for your first interview), and I just want you to be rest assured in knowing that we really look forward to talking to you and hearing what you have to learn.

That said, like with any other job, some sources do just drive us up a wall.

At the end of the day, you want an article or blog post that makes you and your company, product or service look good. But we’re the gatekeepers. So let me help you avoid these five things that drive journalists crazy …


1. When you don’t know what you’re talking about

Hey, it’s great when a journalist wants to interview you for an article. And you are probably a subject matter expert about many, many things.

But you don’t know absolutely everything.

There is nothing worse than talking to someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. Earlier in my career, I thought it was my fault. Why am I now getting it? As I would jump from a source that didn’t really understand the subject to one that did, I slowly figured out that I can’t really learn from an unknowledgeable source.

I truly respect those who are upfront and honest with me about what they do and do not know, and keep them in my mental Rolodex when I can reach out to them as a source for a piece that more squarely fits into their wheelhouse.


Interview Tip: Clearly communicate to the reporter what topics you can expertly shed some light on, and which you can’t, before the interview. If you need a template to help you, here’s a note I recently sent (after a back and forth to get clarity on the subject) when asked to be a source about online advertising in videos …

I could speculate if you’d like.

For example, I would think that advertisers would value embedding, as should the content creators. It spreads their message to new communities. The only downside would be content creators who are looking to sell, for example, a membership offering. Then, it is a mixed bag.

And aside from worrying about traffic or views, they should worry about results. If they use a custom URL, they should be able to see how many “clicks” they are getting from the effort.

Don’t know if that’s the kind of info you’re looking for? If so, we could discuss that. But again, it’s speculation. I don’t have hands-on experience, or research data, about ad placement in videos.



2. When you’re unprepared

Interviews aren’t a pop quiz. And the onus is on journalists to extract the information. But as the old joke goes about the guy who prays to win the lottery but never plays … meet us half way there.


Interview Tip: As you would with any other meeting you have … prepare a little. You should already know the general topic you’re interviewing about at the very least (and some reporters will even send questions or specific data they’re looking for beforehand). But here are a few things you can gather to bolster the interview (this varies widely, of course):

  • First and foremost, your thoughts – Put a little time into thinking about the subject, and you won’t feel caught off-guard or “on the spot” during the interview.
  • Examples and analogies Especially when talking about complex industry-specific or technical information, help shed light on the topic for my audience (and, hey, I’ll admit it … sometimes for myself as well), by having an example or analogy at the ready.
  • Qualitative and quantitative data – Why should I believe what you’re saying? Back it up with some proof.
  • Other contacts – Where can I go for more information? Making a connection with customers who are willing to talk or other subject matter experts in your company is always helpful. Other contacts you have in the industry are very helpful as well. If you tell me the people who work at your competitors whom you really respect … well then, you are a king among men.


3. When you don’t talk like a real person

Sure, we all know and love TPS reports, AJAX, DHTML, and .htaccess files. And using this industry jargon makes you sound smart when you say this because we have no idea what you’re talking about.

But since the goal of an interview is for the reporter to have an idea of what you’re talking about … please, speak human.

OK, I’m being a bit extreme here, part of being a beat reporter for an industry is being able to speak the language of that industry. Nevertheless, go easy. It will only help with the communication of the points you’re trying to make.

“I would say in my career as a reporter the most consistent element of a good interview is the ability to speak to the subject matter without getting bogged down in lingo. Sales and marketing is addicted to its private language. It’s like the business version of J.R.R. Tolkein,” said Jesse Noyes, Corporate Reporter, Eloqua.


Interview Tip: Here’s Jesse’s advice …

“The interviewer needs to provide the reader with a clear and compelling story — a relatable story. When marketers come in heavy on the lingo, they saddle the interviewer with the additional duty of interpreting their meaning for the reader. Skip that process and come in saying something real, in common English. Act like you’re talking to your friends or family, not the CFO.”


4. When you don’t realize that an interview is a two-way conversation

You’ve got a lot of fascinating stuff to say. And we want to hear it. But you have to let us talk as well.

In fact, most of the interesting information I’ve uncovered in an interview came not from the questions I prepared, but from the follow-up questions I was able to ask as part of an engaging discussion.

Freelance reporter Jeri Dube very nicely summed it up by saying, “I like it when people take a breath between sentences. It gives me time to clarify a point if I need to.”

Don’t get me wrong, most of this interview will be you talking — not us. And we can’t wait to hear what you have to say. Just make sure when the train leaves the station that we’re along for the ride as well.


Interview Tip: … and breathe. Plus, you can ask us questions too if you like. Such as:

  • Can you tell me a little about your readers so I make sure I’m providing relevant information?
  • Did that make sense? Would you like me to clarify that statement in any way?
  • Am I giving you the information you need?
  • Is there a specific type of example you’re looking for?
  • What do you do in your spare time? (long walks on the beach, thanks for asking)


5. When you spin and shill

“Interviewees don’t do their companies any favors when they are so ‘on message’ that they don’t listen to or answer the questions I’m actually asking them,” Jeri said.

Honestly, this is the one that really gets to us the most.  We understand that you have a (thinly hidden) agenda. And, hey, that’s OK with us. Without it, you probably wouldn’t be talking to us in the first place. And we deeply value your knowledge.

That said ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The reason we’re writing this article is to provide value to the readers, not to promote your company. If you want to shill, go buy an ad.

“I look for sources who are open and honest,” Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter, MECLABS, said. “If you go into ‘sales’ mode or are reading lines off of a PR sheet, then I am going to ignore you until you sound like a person. Will I pretend to listen? Yes. Will I be wondering what’s for lunch? Definitely.”


Interview Tip: Don’t be shady. Journalists are among the most skeptical people I know, you cannot pull a fast one on us. Don’t shill. Don’t spin. Don’t read talking points. And don’t stick to the party line. Just be yourself, and help us help the readers.


Related Resources:

Public Relations: The best press release is no press release

Hire A Journalist! (We did, and here’s what we learned) via Eloqua

Content Marketing: Case studies are stories — so be a storyteller by Adam T. Sutton

Email Relevance: 8 tactics for leveraging timing, segmentation and content by Jeri Dube

Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

Categories: PR Fame Communications Tags: , , ,

  1. January 20th, 2012 at 10:19 | #1

    Here’s a tip that’s specific to case studies (either when being interviewed by a journalist, or even internally for website content):

    Don’t leave out aspects of what you did during the campaign because you think those steps or practices are: too obvious, too mundane, are just “business as usual,” or maybe just too simple.

    What might seem like nothing more than watching the sun rise every morning to you could be the missing piece for another marketer’s effort in a similar campaign.

    That daily routine you apply to every campaign across all marketing channels might very likely be the “a ha” moment for someone reading about how you conducted the effort covered by the case study.

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