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An Advocate’s Guide to Media Interviews

Waiting on set for an TV interview.

By Michelle Schaunaman, CCASA Blogger

If you come from an Advocacy, Counseling, or Social Work background, you likely don’t have a Communications Degree or media experience. Unless I missed Media Interviewing 101 in my Social Work studies, I don’t believe it’s something that’s regularly taught.

Over the past couple years, there are a few things I’ve learned about working with the media—things that aren’t often openly discussed in advocacy organizations without communications staff.

After being featured in nearly 50 interviews about Domestic and Sexual Violence, and prepping numerous survivors and advocacy organization staff members for interviews, I have some helpful tips for interviews with the media.

Here are some general media interview tips:

  1. Stick to your talking points. Come up with three talking points around the general topic or story idea the reporter gives you. Always try to bring the conversation back to your points. You actually have the power in this dynamic and have the opportunity to ‘run’ the interview. Remember your power and your talking points—without you there might not be a story.
  2. Think like a politician. Just because you’re asked a question, doesn’t mean you have to directly answer it. Watch politicians’ debates or interviews. They stick to their ‘talking points’ or agenda, especially when asked the difficult or uncomfortable questions.
  3. Avoid vague words. Words like ‘this,’ ‘that,’ or ‘it’ are very non-specific. Unfortunately your vague words or phrases could be misconstrued. (An ethical journalist won’t take your words out of context, but what you say might not come off as you intended, if you’re not specific.) For instance, saying, “When situations like this happen,” versus “When sexual assaults happen,” gives different impressions. ‘This’ could refer to sexual assault in general or a specific case/situation for which you’re being asked to comment. Which one, sexual assault in general or a specific situation, are you referencing?
  4. Speak in short sentences. If you’re not being interviewed live on camera, odds are you will be edited and long answers will be shortened. When asked a question, it’s okay to pause (again when the interview is not live) and think about the best quick response. From a general news interview that lasts 15 minutes, you might be featured once or twice in the actual story giving only 5 second answers on camera or a sentence or two in print.
  5. Stay in “Interview Mode.” Whenever you speak with a reporter be in “Interview Mode.” On the phone setting up the interview, when you greet them at the door, after the interview, and until you walk them out the door, be in “Interview Mode.” The notion of “off the record,” is real but don’t rely on it. If you say it, it can end up in print or on the screen. Remember this especially when your microphone is on or if you’re being recorded.

Now some specific tips for advocates:

  1. Remove jargon. Jargon refers to technical terms only people in a specific field would know and use. Use informative and accurate language, but remember the general population might not know what a ‘TPO’ is so say ‘Temporary Protective Order’ or ‘Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner,’ versus ‘SANE’ when possible.
  2. Keep it as general as possible. When you’re asked to comment on a case or a specific situation, stick to the basics. Basics include, ‘this is what sexual assault is,’ ‘our organization is here to help,’ and general facts and statistics about Sexual Violence. Especially if you’re not comfortable in the limelight, talking about specifics can pull you ‘into the weeds’ and take you away from your talking points.
  3. Sidestep sensationalism. Occasionally, a reporter might ask you for your personal feelings about the issue or for your reaction. Don’t respond with your gut and say something like, “That’s awful” or “It’s disgusting.” Respond with logic and facts. A better choice might be, “Unfortunately sexual assault occurs in our community,” instead of “It’s awful that this happens.” Word choices like this make you seem more intelligent as the interviewed expert and help keep the story from being sensationalized.
  4. Remember survivors are watching. You never know if the survivor in the case you’re asked to comment on will see your interview or not. Think about if your statements would be alienating or inviting to them specifically or all survivors watching or reading the interview. First hand, I’ve seen interviews bring in clients. Media has power and advocacy organizations don’t always do a good job of harnessing that power to shape/inform the discussions around Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Radio Interview
On a radio show.

For those of you preparing survivors for a media interview, the general tips above apply. However, there is far more to be considered when a survivor is interviewed versus a staff person speaking on behalf of an organization. In a future post, I share insights about preparing survivors to speak publically and working with news media on survivor stories.

Hopefully these tips will help you with upcoming interviews and inspire your confidence. Best of luck with your interviews!

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