Executive Interview Advice

Most people — even top-level executives — don’t have much experience being interviewed by the media, but being able to acquit yourself properly and make the most of an interview may suddenly become a necessity. Perhaps you’ve been named to a top position in your company; maybe you’re an entrepreneur whose business is of interest to the media; or you might be on the senior staff of a company in a crisis. People in business and public life can quickly find themselves in a situation where they need to know how to handle themselves with the press. Here are some helpful tips.

  1. Keep your answers to the press simple, clear and without painstaking detail. If the reporter wants more information, he or she will ask for it. In general, it is best to keep answers to about 20 seconds in length.
  2. Preparation is everything. Take time beforehand to think through what you will likely be asked and how you can respond clearly and concisely. Think about any special points you want to make. Try to raise these points if the reporter doesn’t ask about them.
  3. Never respond to a question with “no comment.” There are many ways to avoid commenting without using the phrase, which reporters and the public loathe. Examples are: “The company is preparing a statement,” “We are still investigating those issues at this time,” or, “There is nothing further we can add.”
  4. Don’t ask to speak “off the record.” There is no such thing. Always assume you are on the record.
  5. Think of your audience and make sure your responses reflect their interests. A weekly community newspaper most likely will be interested in the local area and local issues. A business section of a large regional newspaper will usually focus on broader facts and trends.
  6. Don’t ask reporters to let you see their stories before they run. However, it is fine to ask a reporter to read back your quotes to you so that you can make sure you provided a clear answer or explanation.
  7. Never lose your temper, even if the questions are offensive. Your anger will become part of the story. This can be especially detrimental with broadcast media, as what you do will be seen or heard and can be edited to maximum effect.
  8. A reporter leaves a voicemail message asking you to call back regarding something you know is bad news about your company. Should you call back? If you are a top officer in the company, or the company spokesperson, you must absolutely respond and in quick fashion, within a couple of hours and certainly well before the business day’s end. If you are not a top officer, immediately notify the company’s senior staff and designated spokesperson.

Here are some suggestions for handling the situation.

  • Anticipate the questions you are likely to be asked and think through how you want to frame the responses. You may even want to jot down key phrases on a piece of paper before you call back.
  • Remain and sound calm and in control.
  • If you don’t have the information for the reporter on hand, say so. Tell the reporter that you are checking on the situation and that you will call back with an answer. Give as precise a time as possible under the circumstances and call back at that time. At this point, your word means everything.

Remember that it is always better to get bad news out early and accurately. Bad news that trickles out will stay in the news much longer than bad news that is reported at once and accurately.

Do not ignore the issue by not calling back, stalling the reporter indefinitely, or saying that you have “no comment.” This will make you look bad and it won’t prevent the reporter from doing the story. Also, consider that your audience in this matter may not only be the community at large, but investors and employees too. They may need to hear your take on the issue.

Consider issuing a printed statement to the media that explains your company’s position. This way, you appear responsive, and it most likely will reduce the time you have to talk with reporters. It can also reduce the chance of being confronted on camera with a question you’re not prepared to answer.