SSM: Want to Avoid a Bad Interview? Read This!


By Mary Chung | Smash Street Media

By Mary Chung | Smash Street Media

You just had your first media interview and you couldn’t believe how smoothly it went. You walk away feeling like you charmed the reporter, had a winning interview, and got your positive story out. The next morning you read your interview online expecting to see quotes on your promotion, your new corporate product launch and your company’s expansion into other regions. It’s all there, in one paragraph, and the remaining six paragraphs are devoted to an off-color joke, the infighting within your corporate board, and rumors of a regulatory investigation at your competitor’s company.

You call the reporter and start screaming that the story is going to get you and your company in trouble. The reporter calmly states the interview was taped and asks you if there was anything in the interview that you did not say or was inaccurate. You’re stumped because every single quote in the story can be attributed to you. The disappointment, humiliation and rage set in. A few minutes later your phone starts ringing off the hook and a flood of emails start coming in.

You know you’re in trouble.

This scenario - or degrees of it - happens every day. To avoid the pitfalls of an interview that can potentially get you in trouble, you have to understand that an interview is a professional meeting, and a journalist is not your buddy or friend. And while you’re parading your list of accomplishments and your rosy company outlook, a journalist’s job is to glean the most interesting news during the hour he/she has to interview you.

So, before every interview, set the ground rules. Make sure the reporter explicitly knows which parts of the interview can be quoted and which parts cannot be used under any circumstances.


On the record: Whatever you say can be used in the story and attributed to your name.

Off the record: This used to be the opposite of “on the record” -- whatever you say cannot be used under any circumstance. However, some reporters are now treating “off the record” as “background” information that can be used but not for attribution to the source, so make sure you and the reporter are in clear agreement about the meaning before the interview 

Background: This is a tactical approach to getting information out but not attributed to you directly. What you say will be sourced to a “senior person at a company” or a “person with knowledge of the situation.” The identity of the source is not revealed but his/her position or connection with the information can be stated. As noted above, in some cases, reporters are now interchangeably using “background” and “off the record.”

Deep background: This takes it a step further than “background.” Information can be used in a story without attribution to any source. This protects the anonymity of the source and allows the reporter to use the information in the story.

These are important media terms to know that can help you tell your story and avoid getting in trouble. If you want to play it safe, avoid talking about anything that you don’t want to get out to the public during interviews. Also, you may be the funniest person at your company, but it’s better to avoid jokes as well. Not everyone is going to share your sense of humor.

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