5 ways media interviews go up in flames

A disastrous live interview can undo months of hard work. Here is how PR pros (and their clients) can prepare for some classic missteps in “do or die” interviews.

When it comes to on-camera flops, the most cringe-worthy disasters arise when a company spokesperson is drowning during a live interview.

With the jittery nerves, tough questions and an unforgiving camera lens, tanking is not uncommon, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.

Here are five examples of classic media interview failures, and some tips so you can avoid a similar fate:

1. You don’t know your key messages cold.

The briefing: In this 2015 soundbite, LBC reporter Nick Ferrari interviewed the then-Green Party leader Natalie Bennett on affordable housing…and Bennett seems to have no idea how to make it happen.

What went wrong: Bennett knows her key message, but doesn’t seem to know much about it. The reporter senses her uncertainty, and keeps relentlessly poking and prodding, making Bennett stutter, stumble and sound flustered.

How to avoid it: Especially in radio interviews, there’s no excuse not to be prepared. Ahead of the interview, jot down your notes in “tree” form. Each key message is a tree trunk, but without any branches, you’re left with a stump. Come up with 3-5 talking points or facts about each key message. When developing your “branches,” anticipate the questions you might be asked and draft accordingly.

Anytime your interview or press conference involves policy changes or government-funded projects, expect and prepare for the budget/cost question. It’s inevitable.

2. You didn’t prepare for hardball questions.

The briefing: In a 2012 interview, Jeremy Paxman interviews Treasury minister Chloe Smith about a fuel duty U-turn…and it’s bad.

What went wrong: Smith was obviously given a canned statement to bring to the interview, but instead of using a bridging technique to either subtly change the subject or assert herself and her stance, she repeats her canned statement over (and over) again.

How to avoid it: Yes, you come on a program to talk about the cool things happening with you, your business or your brand—but it’s not always a walk in the park. When you are preparing for an interview, practice fielding challenging questions, and consider bringing in a professional for media training. They’ll develop potential hard-hitting questions a reporter might ask and can take you through a full-length mock interview, so you get some practice answering the toughest queries.

For extra prep, be sure to videotape your practice session. Even if you are playing it cool in your verbal responses, your body language may tell a different story; the interviewer (and the audience) will pick up on it.

3. You woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

The briefing: Good Day Sacramento interviews Cara Delevingne’s as part of a press tour for the movie “Paper Towns”; she seems less than thrilled to be there.

What went wrong: Delevingne may have woken up on the wrong side of the bed or took a sleeping pill before she went on air, but she was a diva and a half to these poor, peppy morning TV show hosts — snapping back terse, sarcastic answers and rolling her eyes. They were trying to ask her about her role and her busy schedule, and to the viewer (and the hosts), she seems uninterested at best.

How to avoid it: Even if it feels fake or unnatural, try to match the hosts’ level of enthusiasm. You see Cara look off to the side and down at the floor, and while it may be an honest mistake, to the audience, it reads as bored and unenthused.

Morning TV show hosts are usually full of energy. It’s early, and they are trying to be a happy, friendly face during the groggy hours of the morning. It’s understandable if you are not a morning person; what isn’t understandable is showing up to a TV interview half alive. Even if you are tired, grumpy or hangry, for that four-minute segment, fake it ’til you make it.

4. You scored the interview—but have nothing to say.

The briefing: The Cadbury CEO is interviewed about the future of chocolate; he doesn’t have much to say.

What went wrong: A big shot Cadbury CEO has an appearance on CNBC, and simply put, he will not tell them anything important. When the reporters call him out, he smiles and continues to speak words—but nothing anyone cares about.

Next time: The media is looking for a story—for some kind of news—and if you are given a chance to be that news, you had better give it to them. No, you don’t have to give away the recipe to your secret sauce, but when you are working with media, it’s a give-and-take relationship. They give you the exposure; you give them the exclusive.

5. Your private room turns out to not be so private.

The briefing: There were some unexpected visitors for Professor Robert Kelly when he was being interviewed live on BBC News about South Korea; the clip went viral in 2017.

Where it went wrong: Most things about this video are actually great. Professor Kelly looks nice from the waist up—perfect for a skype interview. The lighting and audio are decent. The setting looks professional enough—until Child #1 comes blasting through the door, quickly followed by a baby on wheels and a frantic wife who crawls in on all fours and manhandles the children back out the door. Props to Professor Kelly for completing the interview as professionally as possible, considering the circumstances. However, that probably wasn’t the story he was trying to tell.

Next time: Lock your door when going on live TV.

Aiden Guilfoyle works for the Hodges Partnership, a strategic communications firm in Richmond, VA. A version of this article originally appeared on the Gong Blog.

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