Jun 29, 2012
Dear Gracie: 4 Ways to Convince Experts to Talk to the Press
Each week, Dear Gracie answers questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from our network of nearly 50,000 ProfNet experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you’ve been wondering that none of your colleagues can answer? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
I have several clients who always put up a fight when asked to be interviewed by a reporter. Why? What can I say to convince them that press interviews and publicity are worthwhile?
Dear Agitated Agent,
Six ProfNet experts talk about why some researchers are hesitant or unwilling to talk to reporters:
Why Experts Might Resist Media Interviews
Michael Bruckner, vice president of public relations at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, says that experts might resist press interviews because 1) they may not be used to deadlines, or providing immediate responses; and 2) they may not have significant research or experience on the given topic, and don’t feel comfortable being interviewed as an authority.
It could be fear of the unknown, the possibility of a misquote that could put the expert’s job in jeopardy, or fear of public speaking, adds Ron Whittington, senior account executive at Mulberry Marketing Communications.
“It was hard to find an expert that felt comfortable talking to the media,” says Michelle Mekky, vice president of the PR firm Alpaytac. “I constantly dealt with researchers that felt insecure, as they thought that they were not interesting enough.”
Dr. Vondie Lozano — former psychology professor at Azusa Pacific University and a former instructor at University of La Verne, who currently owns and runs Vondie’s Counseling — says that when she was a full-time faculty expert, there were many demands on her time, including teaching, interacting with students, researching, working on committees and more.
“I wasn’t even aware of the potential for PR. It wasn’t even on my radar,” Lozano explains. “And even if I had been aware, I would not have had the time to follow up.”
Furthermore, Lozano says she could see how the university would benefit from her being interviewed by a reporter, but not how it would benefit her individually. “Faculty are evaluated and advanced based on very specific criteria, such as publishing in peer-reviewed journals,” she says. “PR was not part of that criteria, so there would have been little incentive.”
She notes, however, that as a faculty member, she would have responded to queries from within the university system. She also says that she would have considered any media training offered by the university, as well as any incentives for participating in media interviews.
Reasons for Experts to Accept Media Interviews
1. Media is the way to reach your target audience, says Tim O’Brien, owner of O’Brien Communications. If you want to target important stakeholders like investors, local community members, industry leaders, regulators, analysts or trade associations; media is one of the best ways to do that.
“Visibility is important,” agrees Bruckner. “Whether we like it or not, this is a media-driven — or at least image-driven — society.”
2. Interviews are an important aspect of being seen as a leader in your field, explains O’Brien.
“Every media opportunity translates into gaining more recognition for their research and achievements,” says Mekky.
3. “The media will cover you, your industry or your competitors without your help,” says O’Brien. “If you don’t involve yourself in the story, you have no say in the final outcome. By being involved, you help shape the story more to your liking.”
4. Most of the time, reporters are calling an expert for a positive story and are not looking for negative information, says Bruckner.
Expert Still Resisting?
Scott Lorenz, president of Westwind Communications, believes that there are very few occasions when an expert should be coaxed or coerced into media interviews. “If there is apprehension on the part of the expert, there’s a good reason,” he says.
Some experts might have faulty research or some other anxiety issue, Lorenz continues. For example, he was once asked to speak at a press conference after being awake for 36 hours straight. “How about that for a reason to beg off?” he says.
So the first step in this process of convincing experts to talk to the press should be identifying the reason for anxiety, says Whittington.
Make sure the expert completely understands what’s in it for them too, suggests Mekky.
If the expert is afraid of being misquoted, join the conference call with the expert and reporter, or escort them to an on-camera interview, continues Whittington. Sit down with the expert and help them develop their main points, or try mock interviewing them to get them warmed up.
“Some anxiety issues can be resolved with media training, but that requires some forethought on the part of the PR department by offering company experts media training in advance,” Lorenz explains. “Never throw your expert out there without some media training.”
Lorenz also suggests giving reporters written statements by the experts that clearly say what the expert wants to convey.
If an expert gets a phone call from a reporter looking for an immediate interview, they have the option of saying, “I can’t talk right now, but I will call you back in just a few moments.” Then they can take a couple of minutes to think about what they want to say and write down a few keywords or phrases, says Bruckner. But remember that journalists are on deadline, so don’t call back too late.
If a reporter asks for compromising information, do not say “no comment,” says Bruckner. That just sounds suspicious. Instead, say something like “I don’t have enough information to talk about that issue” or “Now I’m getting outside of my expertise.” Perhaps even suggest another expert to discuss that point.
If the expert has no comments to offer, they should call the reporter back anyway and let them know, continues Bruckner. A polite “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you” is better than no response.
As for media training for experts, Mekky says that each of the following skills should be covered:
- Sticking to the company message and conveying it in a strong, meaningful way
- Speaking conversationally
- Showing personality and energy
- Steering the interview in a certain direction
- Controlling tough questions
- Answering questions the expert doesn’t know the answer to
- Overcoming nerves
- Knowing what to wear, including hair, makeup and wardrobe advice
- Handling all types of interviewers
- Preparing for any format (in studio, taped, live satellite or phone)
- Using body language to exude confidence and make an impact
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