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How to Give a Great Phone Interview

When clients hire us for PR, their main goal is to get coverage of themselves or their brand in target outlets. For a lot of people, they think our job is to reach out to media and get a placement. True. But there's one step that typically comes between our pitch and the coverage: the interview. And that's something that we can't (usually) do for the client, so our job is to do the next best thing and prepare them to give an interview that gets their brand across, gives the reporter information so that they have an interesting story to pursue and include the client in the story, and feel good about the piece that results.

While we put together a custom media prep for most major interviews that our clients do, there are a lot of tips that can help you do a great interview. Today, we're starting with the most common interview you'll have to do: a phone interview with a reporter, which can range from a quick 15-minute chat to an hour or more of in-depth profiling. Next, we'll talk about TV interviews, which have a slightly different strategy. Here are our top tips for acing your next phone interview with a reporter:

Do Your Research

Your first step should be to check out what the writer or reporter has written in the past. Read his or her past few articles and scan through for any that take a similar angle to what you've pitched for yourself. Simply by doing this, you can get a sense of what the writer is most interested in or his or her style when interviewing. You can quickly sense whether the writer is more surface or in-depth. Check out how long the pieces are and how much space is given to quotes; this will help you understand how to-the-point you need to be with your answers. Fewer quotes, shorter story = make sure every word you say counts. If a little longer and more in-depth, you can get a bit more personal with your answers.

Create Talking Points... and Write Them Down

Prior to the interview, jot down a few talking points that you want to be sure you're covering in the interview. You're talking about something you're familiar with, so a note or two should suffice. The purpose of writing it down is to have something to reference if you're at a loss or the interview is winding down and you want to be sure you've gotten everything in.

... But Just a Few

Three or four talking points will do ya. Don't overdo it - the point of talking points is to give yourself a short, simple message to get across. This is also a great exercise in honing in on your message and what's most important to communicate. If you're working with a PR pro, they'll help you distill these.

Don't Be Afraid to Not Give an Answer

Don't give an answer if you're not sure of it. If you expect the interview will have lots of facts and figures, memorize those or have them available to you to ensure accuracy. If you're asked something you don't know, it's OK to tell the reporter you'll follow up with the right answer. (Just be sure to get their deadline so you get them the info on time!) 

If there's a question you simply don't want to answer at all, you have two options. First, you can pivot if the question is tangentially related to something else you'd like to discuss. Common phrases you'll hear in a pivot are things like, "That's an interesting question, and it brings up..." or "A lot of people focus on that, but in fact, the important thing is..."

The second option is to be straightforward and tell the reporter that's not a question you're comfortable answering or at liberty to discuss. For example, if someone were to ask you a question about personal income as a business owner, a good answer might be, "I don't share my personal financial information. I can tell you the company has experienced year over year growth of 20%."

Understand What "Off the Record" Means

A lot of inexperienced interviewers aren't sure what "off the record" really means. So they'll say, "This is off the record, but..." There are a few things to remember about "off the record." The first is, essentially, it means nothing. Ethically, if a journalist agrees to it, then they shouldn't publish what you said. Practically and technically, the only thing stopping them is their relationship with you and their not wanting to burn a bridge, so you need to remember that when deciding what to share in any way.

I always remind clients that if you'd be mortified to see it in print, DON'T SAY IT. Ever. Unethical behavior aside, mistakes and miscommunications happen all the time.

The second reminder is that the reporter has to agree to go off the record with you. The proper way to do this is to ask, "Can we go off the record for a moment here?" When the reporter says, "Sure," then you can go ahead and continue.

Follow Up After the Interview

As a PR pro, it's our job to follow up post-interview. This is usually a time when we remind the reporter of the client's website or other brand information, send a few additional stats or talking points if they weren't shared in the interview and provide any other follow up info, as well as find out when the story will run.

If you've been interviewed, you should perform the same follow up to ensure the reporter has everything they need. If you promised them anything during the interview, like a photo, be sure to get that to them before their deadline.

Don't Bait & Switch - Be a Good Interview

If your pitch has opened the door to an interview, then make it a good one. Don't bait the reporter with a promise of a juicy story and then try to turn into a commercial for your brand once you get on the phone. Understand that the job of a reporter is to get a good story-not to promote your brand-and the more that you can help them do so, the better your relationship with the reporter will be going forward.