If you think there’s no such thing as bad publicity, just ask a public relations consultant or the likes of Ryan Lochte, Charlie Sheen, Prince Andrew, Kanye West, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.
Bad press is intensified by a media spokesperson who botches a media interview, resulting in potential brand damages such as a loss in loyalty, credibility, revenue, market share, and ultimately a tarnished reputation. This impact can be long-lasting, difficult to repair, and significantly affect the brand’s overall success and profitability.
Unless the media interview is paid for, generally, journalists will not provide interview questions upfront. Few journalists give up their best questions before an interview, as they want it to play out authentically and naturally – not rehearsed.
Giving a media interview can be an uncomfortable experience, with many fearing the possibility of saying the wrong thing or being taken out of context. Whether you are a business leader, a politician, or a celebrity, your responses to media interview questions can make or break your reputation. But, with proper council and preparation, spokespeople can prepare to answer any question, no matter how difficult the topic is. Consider the following as a guide:
- Understand the Question
Many interviewees don’t always fully comprehend what the interviewer is asking. Listening carefully to the question and asking for clarification if needed is essential. Before responding, take a few seconds to think about the answer and gather your thoughts.
For example, during an interview with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a reporter asked, “Can you clarify your position on Brexit?” Johnson took a moment to collect his thoughts and replied, “I think what the people of this country want us to focus on in this election is what we can do to improve their lives and get Brexit done.” This is a hollow statement. Not only does it demonstrate that Johnson either didn’t listen to the question or understand what was being asked of him, but he also missed an opportunity to share strategic messages that reaffirmed his party’s position on the matter.
- Stay on Message
This means sticking to the key points you want to convey and not allowing yourself to be side-tracked by irrelevant questions. Prepare by identifying your core message and supporting points, and practice delivering them clearly and concisely.
Always go into an interview with a quotable comment. Molly McPherson, a PR expert, says, “choose a talking point that you want to land and make sure it fits into a tweet.”
- Be Transparent and Authentic
Avoid exaggerating or misrepresenting facts, as this can quickly lead to losing credibility.
Take the case of the Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal. In 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accused Volkswagen of cheating on emissions tests for its diesel cars. Volkswagen initially denied the accusations, and Michael Horn, the CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, stated in an interview that the company had not installed any software to cheat emissions tests, which was later revealed to be dishonest.
Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder lawsuit is another case in point. A spokesperson for J&J defended the safety of the company’s talc-based products in a 2018 interview with CBS News, stating that the company had ‘scientifically proven’ that the products were safe, but internal documents showed that the company knew for decades that these products could be contaminated with asbestos, which can cause cancer.
- Use Positive Language
Positive language can help convey a message effectively and build a positive image. Avoid negative language or defensive responses, as these can make you appear uncooperative or hostile. Focus on framing responses positively and constructively.
United Airlines’ response to the incident involving the removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight in 2017 is an example of a brand that used positive language to talk about a negative incident.
Following the incident, United Airlines faced criticism and negative media attention. In their official response, they used positive language to acknowledge the incident, express their regret, and outline their steps to address the situation. It included phrases such as ‘re-accommodate’ instead of ‘remove’ or ‘drag off’, ‘finding solutions’ instead of ‘correcting mistakes’ or ‘reversing poor decisions’. It also expressed sympathy for the passenger, emphasised the importance of respecting customers, and promised to review and improve their policies and procedures, turning sentiment around.
- Control Your Emotions
Media interviews can be emotional experiences, particularly when discussing controversial or sensitive topics. However, it is important to remain calm and composed throughout the interview. Avoid getting defensive or confrontational, as this can make you appear unprofessional and damage your credibility.
The Daily Maverick published an article in March this year about “UCT Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s misleading interview with JJ Tabane.” It highlighted how “an increasingly irate Phakeng responded to reported criticism by calling the host a “journalistic buffoon” and asking: “Do you know how many people said I should talk to [e.tv journalist] Annika Larsen instead because you are a joke?”
Lululemon’s founder and former CEO, Chip Wilson, gives us another example from a 2013 interview with Bloomberg TV. Wilson was asked about complaints from customers regarding the quality of the company’s yoga pants, which were reported to be see-through and pilling after a few wears. Instead of addressing the concerns, Wilson blamed the problem on women’s bodies, stating that “some women’s bodies just actually don’t work” with the company’s pants. His comments were criticised for being insensitive and body-shaming, resulting in a customer backlash and a stock price drop. Wilson later apologised and stepped down as CEO, but the incident damaged the brand’s reputation and lost customer trust.
Media interviews can make or break a brand’s reputation, so it’s vital to approach them with a strategic and proactive mindset. They can be a powerful tool for building a positive brand image and gaining stakeholder trust.