Confident Public Speaking Part Three: Being a Media Spokesperson

Kathleen Pequeño
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You've learned your talking points, connected with your passion, you've practiced and know your audience (tips from Part One and Part Two of this series). All that will help you when it's time to talk to a reporter, and there are a couple more steps specific to media work. How to prepare for an interview:

Brevity Matters

You've seen the length of quotes in newspaper articles and heard them in radio news stories: two sentences. You can't take five minutes to get to your talking points. Practice being on message in two-sentence chunks.

Practice your A, B, Cs

This is one of the best skills to hone in on for better media interviews. Once a reporter asks a question:

  • Acknowledge the question
  • Bridge to your message
  • Communicate your talking points

More specifically:

  • You acknowledge that someone asked a question, "Yes, that's true," or "That's an important question."
  • Bridge to your message, "and the reality is..." or "what we've found is...."
  • Move quickly through A and B then communicate your talking point.

Example from a campaign to change state policy to ensure that Oregon children are not exposed to pesticides in schools or parks, where pesticide spraying is still routine. 

Practice question: Why should people be concerned about pesticides? They've been tested by the government and you can buy them in the store. Wouldn't that mean they're safe for people to be around?

Answer without ABC: Just because pesticides have been tested and we haven't proven a direct connection doesn't mean that there isn't a connection between pesticides and human health risks. There's still cause for concern. (This answers the second question asked, but does not convey what this campaign is really about. It's true, but is "off message," even casting doubt on the main message that pesticides are bad.)

Answer with ABC: People should be concerned about pesticides, especially when it comes to children. We know there are links between pesticides and cancer in people, especially children. With some simple changes, we can make sure that Oregon's children aren't breathing in pesticides at schools and public parks. (Text in bold is the key message for the campaign right now.)

The best way to do this is with practice sessions. Plan to practice with at least a half dozen replies before any media interaction. Practice till you can do it without thinking. 

Don't Repeat Your Opponents' Phrases

Most social justice groups are messaging against a "dominant frame" -- the way an issue is commonly understood (which often means the way it's misunderstood). If you find yourself opening with, "It's not that... [insert your opponents' talking point]," practice your bridging.

Instead, open your responses with, "What we're talking about is... [your talking point]" or "I want to focus on the real issue here, [your talking point]."

Example of repeating a false opponent's frame: "It's a myth that crime is on the rise -- in fact, it's falling. [On to talking point.]" 

Example of bridging with your own frame: "We have to deal with the reality that crime is on the decrease. Now is the time to get smart and get serious about making the crime rate drop further."

If your spokespeople have a hard time with this, develop an internal tip sheet with specific examples on how to avoid using your opponents' frames. Create a two-column, "They Say" and "We Say" sheet.

You're probably going to wind up with two sentences in a finished media story. Don't use one of them to say what isn't true or what you don't believe.  

You and a Reporter Have Different Jobs

Both of you want a story to appear in the paper/on the radio/on the news. Their job is to craft an interesting story and get a quote from you that fits into their story. Your job is to convey your key message.

A good reporter will keep asking you questions to get a quote that will fit the story they are working on. Give them something usable for their story. Do it by changing around the way you acknowledge or bridge, but stick with your talking points.

The Reporter is Not Your Friend

Reporters are friendly, often pleasant people. And even when they seem to be just standing around chatting, they are working on their story. There is no "off the record."

Don't make jokes, be sarcastic or complain to a reporter, unless you want to see what you said in the finished piece. Anything you say to a reporter can wind up in the finished story! 

More on Being an Effective Spokesperson

smartMeme has a great Spokesperson Tipsheet (this is a PDF, great for printing).

SPIN, a great media resource on so many levels, also has a printable tip sheet for spokespeoople (PDF).

Take time to practice your ABCs, remember that a reporter is not your friend, and don't forget to practice your breathing! The stories you see in print or hear on the radio will improve as a result.

Also in the "Effective Public Speaking" Series:

Thanks to Beyond Toxics for use of an example from their Safe Public Places campaign.