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Media Interview Tips in a ‘Socially Distant’ Digital Age

Our routines were disrupted when the world as we know it paused earlier this year, but somehow, we have figured out how to (successfully) traverse a new normal, balancing the demands of our “day” jobs with the 24/7 responsibilities life, home, families and pets also require. Whew! It’s okay to take a breath – You’ve earned it.


Thanks to the magic of the internet and virtual meeting rooms, set up through Zoom, Teams, WebEx (pick your platform), nearly every industry has found new ways to virtually connect, while maintaining a safe, social distance. Whether we realize it or not, these digital meeting rooms are also teaching us techniques to help us improve communications skills, verbally, non-verbally, and even how we interact with the news media.


Verbally, we’ve learned how to be more succinct and efficient with our word choices. I bet more than a few of us have already reduced our “ah” and “um” count.


From a nonverbal perspective, we’ve become more self-aware. You might feel a little bit uncomfortable watching yourself on camera to begin with. Where do I look? Does my hair look okay? Ugh, why did I just make that face? Wait, does that mean I actually make that face in-person? Good grief. Sound familiar?


Regarding media interactions – even if you don’t regularly interface with the media in your role right now – you’re learning valuable skills that will help you shine the next time a reporter comes calling.


What will – and will not – fly as an excuse for being unable to do an interview has changed. Not having time isn’t one of them. We’re all just a call – and a good internet connection – away from an interview request.


Thanks to the magic of the virtual video chats, there are seven simple steps you can take behind the screen to ensure success when the record button is rolling.


As a former television news producer, admittedly, I watch the news with a more critical eye than the average bear. The following seven tips were curated from interviews I’ve watched recently.


Disclaimer: In May, Strategic Communications, LLC president Crystal DeStefano hosted a virtual panel discussion with the Central New York Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and three Syracuse-based journalists. The discussion was focused on how public relations professionals can be helpful to the media in pitching COVID-19 and non-COVID stories. Brad Vivacqua, a reporter at Spectrum News shared that computer screens and laptop screens are widely preferred over phones for video interviews. The following tips are written with this advice in mind.


  1. Eliminate Possible Distractions Before They Become Disasters: Always ask if the interview will be LIVE or pre-recorded when you first speak to your media contact, so that you can communicate as best you can with members of your household to stay out of the picture (and be quiet) ahead of time. This includes furry friends and non-speaking members of the family too. While the interview itself will probably only be about a five to ten-minute time commitment, in a LIVE scenario, the need for this time to be uninterrupted will be paramount to your sanity (and greatly minimize your chance of going viral 😊).


Pro Tip: In the event your interview is LIVE, if there’s a TV in the room where you’re recording, resist the urge to put on the channel that will be airing your interview. If there’s a delay by even a nanosecond, it might throw you off your A-game.


  1. Sticky Note Strategy: If curating detailed Talking Points is normally on your prep list prior to a media interview, proceed as normal. In a pre-COVID-19 world, if you were meeting a reporter for an on-camera interview, it wasn’t easy to refer to notes. But now, Zoom provides us with the luxury of being able to keep a few tricks up our sleeves—or in this case, just to the right of our screens. When curating your Talking Points, if you feel like you’re struggling to remember something – be it statistics, clunky information or a hard-to-pronounce name – we recommend writing a reminder(s) on sticky note(s), and sticking them to the side of your laptop screen at eye level, or beside the camera lens.


Pro Tip: Don’t go overboard. If you regularly prepare Talking Points, you already know your organization inside and out, and you naturally know the most important components of your message. Save the sticky notes for what may not come as easily. Think about your goals for the interview as you write your sticky notes and try to limit yourself to three reminders.  


  1. Dress for Success: While you may be in the privacy of your home, you’ll still be very public when your interview airs on television. What are you comfortable being seen in? The nice thing is, technically, you only need to look nice from the waist up – but you may feel more put together if you get dressed all the way. It’s your call – whatever make you feel most comfortable during the interview. And if you wear makeup, try not to go too dark around your eyes – depending on the lighting situation, that might make you look more washed out.


  1. Get Into a Groove: Once you’re confident you look the part, practice speaking to make sure you can ‘Talk the Talk.’ This might sound silly, but especially if you’re working alone at home, you might not have had a chance to warm up your vocal cords with small talk yet. Run through your Talking Points, and if you can, watch yourself talk – in either a mirror or better yet, in a practice recording. This will help you get in the right groove for your conversation – that’s right, think of the interview as a conversation – and show yourself grace by catching problematic facial expressions to prevent the non-verbal blunders alluded to earlier.


  1. Lights… When it comes to lighting, don’t be too hard on yourself – After all, few of us are trained photographers. Just remember two things: 1) Natural light trumps overhead light, but if you’re confident in your non-cluttered background, prioritize this over stressing over positioning yourself in the perfect natural light situation. 2) Don’t sit in front of a window. If you position yourself in front of a window, and the sun shines behind you, your face will look too dark and the background will appear too bright. At best, this scenario is distracting. At worst, you will not be recognizable.


Pro Tip: When possible, add depth to your background. Don’t sit right up against the wall, try to move yourself out by two to three feet. If you choose to position yourself in front of a bookshelf, make sure it’s not too cluttered. Bonus points if you’re able to put something related to the interview in view.


Pro Tip: Zoom also allows users to insert their own backgrounds as images (Account Settings – Account Profile – Background Image – Upload New Image). Use this to your advantage. Pop up your company logo, a scene related to the organization you represent, or create a background, showcasing a product sample on a neutral colored palette.


  1. Camera… Clean the camera lens prior to the interview. If you’re using Zoom, make sure the Touch-Up feature (Settings – Meeting – Touch Up) is turned on. Think of this as your own personal Instagram filter – your skin looks softer and blemish-free, your teeth look whiter, and your background looks crisper. And finally, try your best to position yourself so that your face is at eye-level with the camera lens, but leave just a little space above your head. This way, you won’t look like you’re talking down to anyone, or talking up to anyone. You’ll be eye-to-eye with the interviewer and the viewer will be eye-to-eye with you when it airs on television or online.


Pro Tip: If you need to raise the screen, books make a great leveler.


  1. Action: When it’s GO time, always assume that you’re on camera, even when you aren’t talking. While most reporters would have recorded “b-roll” video footage to be playing over your voice at some points throughout the story, it’s a good idea to nod as your interviewer is speaking and smile more than you think you should. In an interesting twist from the COVID-19 news world – brace yourself, this goes against our best practices for in-person interviews – continue to look straight forward at the camera lens instead of at the person conducting the interview. If you look at the interviewer, you may actually appear to be giving “side-eye” on television.


At the end of an interview, most reporters will ask: “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” Use this opportunity to reiterate the most important thing you hope they’ll take away from the interview. This is your ‘Elevator Pitch’ moment, but in reverse. Often, this will wind up being your best soundbite and the most natural pick for the reporter to use. It’s also helpful if someone other than the reporter ends up editing the story for air.


With free video conferencing tools readily available, we encourage everyone to be taking advance of the opportunities to practice these tips. It will help make you more comfortable doing virtual interviews with the media, it will help boost your confidence for in-person interviews when they resume, and it will help boost your organization’s reputation.