Sooner or later, almost every municipal official will have a bad experience resulting from an interview with a news reporter. There are standard complaints: The reporter asked unfair or “loaded” questions, good responses were deleted from the story, or the reporter blew minor points out of all proportion.
A critical factor leading to unsuccessful news media interviews is often the failure of public officials to understand the role of the news media in a free, democratic society. The news media do not serve as the local government’s public relations arm, and it is not a reporter’s job to polish the city’s image or that of any individual municipal official. Quite to the contrary, journalists are trained to question authority, to be wary of the official explanations of government, and to pick apart proposals made by public officials. They are under no obligation to be “fair” to the government officials they interview and are especially leery of officials whom they may suspect want to slant the news in their favor.
The relationship between city hall and the news media is, almost by definition, an adversarial one. While this does not mean the relationship cannot be friendly and satisfying, a smart city official understands and accepts the obligation of the news media to ask tough questions, to probe into areas the government may find embarrassing, and to expose city problems.
Perhaps the single most critical factor leading to a bad news media interview, however, is lack of adequate preparation by the interviewee. Municipal officials wanting to give winning interviews to the press must plan and prepare for them. Successful interviews do not just happen.
The fact that you may have mastered the subject of the interview does not, by itself, assure a successful outcome. There are many examples of bad media interviews given by intelligent public officials who are experts in their field. Similarly, the fact that you may have a cordial relationship with the interviewer does not guarantee a successful performance. This is especially true in radio and television interviews, where the microphone or the camera is all that stands between you and the audience.
However unfair it may be, most of the responsibility for a successful media interview rests with the person being interviewed. However unfair it may be, most of the responsibility for a successful media interview rests with the person being interviewed. True, the reporter or interviewer should be fair and professional, ask the “right” questions, and otherwise lead the interview to a successful conclusion. But if the reporter fails in this regard, it is usually the interviewee who looks bad. For this reason, the public official who truly understands the importance of successful media interviews will take responsibility for making them successful.
This section will help municipal officials prepare for news media interviews and provide strategies for successful outcomes.