Wednesday, February 9, 2011

5 tips to avoid being a media moron

I’ve worked in marketing and communications for over a decade, and as a reporter before that. In my current job, it’s not unusual for journalists to call and interview me.

I’m pretty adept at spouting clever quotes about tourism and recreation, but yesterday’s call threw me for a loop.

“We’re doing a special feature about you that’ll run this Sunday,” the reporter informed me.

“Great!” I chirped. “Is this about the mountain bike race or the brewery tours?”

“Um, no. We’re doing a feature about you.”

Apparently the world of Tawna-the-marketing-geek has collided with the world of Tawna-the-romance-author and I wasn’t entirely ready for it. I’m hoping years of media experience kept me from making a total ass of myself, but I’ll find out for sure on Sunday if I'm quoted saying I like to run around naked with a glove on my head pretending to be a giant squid.

In the interest of helping you prepare for the moment you might be caught off-guard by a reporter, here are a few tips:

Speak slowly, enunciate clearly. This is crucial whether you’re interviewing for radio, TV or print. It’s natural to talk fast when you’re nervous, so make a conscious effort to speak like a kindergarten teacher on valium. Print journalists in particular will appreciate shorter sentences and longer pauses so they can jot your words correctly.

Keep the audience in mind. The reporter who called yesterday works for a mid-sized community newspaper with a readership comprised of a lot of people who may have never read a romance novel. With that in mind, I shared a few facts about the genre and followed up by emailing links to RWA stats and a blog post I wrote in defense of the romance genre. Had I been talking to someone from Romance Times, that wouldn't have been necessary.

Don’t assume anyone will know what the hell you’re talking about. Several times during yesterday’s interview, I caught myself speaking in vague terms about my bumpy road to publication or my blogging role at The Debutante Ball. These are things I’ve talked about so many times here I assume people are sick of them, but I realized quickly it was all new to the reporter. Even if you’re sure the journalist googled your name and gathered preliminary facts, don’t be afraid to reiterate. You’re providing a usable quote in your own words.

Be sensitive to deadlines. Publishing moves at a glacial pace, but news moves fast. Even though I knew the reporter was likely working on a tight deadline, I still cringed when he asked if I could connect him with someone at Sourcebooks within 24 hours for a quote about me. Everyone in my editor’s office is crazy-busy and I don’t like demanding they drop everything on account of me. Nevertheless, I know the publicity will benefit us all, so I bit the bullet and sent the email.

Don’t be a control freak. Plan in advance what major points you want to make and control the message that way. Beyond that, don’t demand a reporter let you read an article before it goes to press. You can ask, certainly, but many reporters will say no. Trust that you’ve done your job conveying your key messages and then trust the reporter to do her job sharing the story in her own words.

Have you ever been caught off-guard by a question from a reporter or anyone else? How did you deal with it? Please share!

I think I have to go lie down now. I just realized it’s possible I really did say the squid thing.

21 comments :

Patrick Alan said...

I don't chirp nearly enough. I think I will chirp on my next phone call. And then buy myself another red dress.

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Sarah W said...

I completely agree about taking time to think about answers and speak them clearly.

It also helps to have blackmail on the photographer so he doesn't use the one of you laughing with your mouth wide open and nostrils flared.

kmullican said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kmullican said...

When local businessman Jeff Ake was kidnapped in the Middle East, local news stations flooded our area. (I live in a small town.) In particular, news vans and reporters were like a swarm of bees by the court house.

I was a legal secretary at the time and the lawyer I worked for didn't want to get anywhere near the media. So he sent me to court to file documents.

Head down, I walked as quickly as I could in heels toward the court house. With documents in hand, I was startled when a reporter jumped out at me and asked me what I thought about Mr. Ake being killed in the manner of Daniel Pearl. I said...

"It makes me want to puke and hold my babies." er - no kidding...that sound played on the news for the next two-three days. My face, stunned, talking about puking on my kids...my 10 seconds of fame...there you go!

Matthew Rush said...

Wow Anon. Babelfish much?

Anyway, I'm not sure I want to get published anymore. I could never handle something like that without royally screwing the pooch.

Linda G. said...

"...if I'm quoted saying I like to run around naked with a glove on my head pretending to be a giant squid."

We can only hope the article includes pictures. ;)

Danica Avet said...

I'm still giggling at the squid confession.

I actually had a brief run-in with a reporter at Nationals in Orlando. I was waiting for my volunteer duties to start before the literacy signing. The reporter was there asking questions of fans who'd come to see the authors and approached me thinking I was another...fan? (I am a fan and was quietly squeeing inside for the chance to meet Christina Dodd and Teresa Medeiros, but I was trying to play it cool.) I tried to make myself sound reasonably intelligent. I think I succeeded. I didn't expound on anything, but kept my sentences short and smiled a lot. I read the article and giggled because er, well my name was in an article! Okay, I'm a goober, but it was exciting.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

That'd be funny if you did include the squid line; maybe other people will laugh and want to read your work even more as a result! People like writers who are funny.
I've never been interviewed, but I have learned a lot about public speaking from teaching. I've learned how to adopt a "teacher persona" in front of my students. That way when I'm lecturing it looks like I know what I'm talking about, even if half the time I'm just pretending to know.

Laura Maylene said...

I'm a journalist and I can say that these are great tips! Especially the last one....many people ask to see articles before they print, and I think it's because they don't understand that it simply doesn't work that way.

I would also add to try not to be too nervous. That reporter on the other end of the phone is just another person like you trying to do her job well. If you're being interviewed about your book, chances are they are not out to make you look bad. So be friendly and try to relax and view this as just another phone conversation.

Also, if you don't understand a question or don't know how to answer it, don't panic. Ask the reporter to rephrase it or clarify it. You can even say, "I'm not sure how to answer this. Can we come back to it, or can I think about it and send you a follow-up email?"

Laura Maylene said...

Oh, and I did get caught off-guard a few times by reporters, the kind doing random man-on-the-street interviews. The worst was when the reporter had a video camera and wanted me to answer the question on tape. I did it because I knew how hard of a time he had trying to get people to agree to participate. As you can imagine, most people really shy away from this type of unexpected questioning. Especially if a video camera is involved.

Also, as a high school student, I was in a bookstore and a reporter from the local paper was going around asking people "Do you think you can judge a book by its cover?" Kind of a cute project, but of course she was having a hard time getting anyone to answer. She asked me and I panicked and said I didn't know and that I needed a few minutes. So she left me alone for a little bit. I promptly hid in the stacks and panicked some more instead of coming up with a clever answer.

She sought me out about 10 minutes later, when I still had nothing. She must have been about 22 years old and looked nervous as hell about doing this. I finally gave some super generic answer that she happily wrote down in her notebook. Then she took my picture for the paper. I went out of my way to never find that little feature in the print!

Amanda said...

Great post. Thanks so much for the advice!

Stephanie said...

Great tips!! I did one internet radio show once and I could have used these tips!! I'll keep them in mind for next time! :)

Simon C. Larter said...

Actually, it's easier when it's television, 'cause the editors will generally cut your footage so you don't make a total ass of yourself. Unless that's what they want to do. In which case, you're screwed either way.

Not that I know this or anything. Maybe. Sort of.

Look, let's just forget I ever mentioned it, okay?

Jason said...

As one who has done the reporting end, this made me smile. :) I would note that the vast majority of all reporters now digitally record their interviews, but it's still necessarily to speak slowly and enunciate. Transcribing is the biggest bane of the journalist's life...and if you mumble it drives us insane. :)

I personally have never been interviewed, but I've been in the large "scrums" of reporters trying to get answers/quotes, and sometimes when you are dealing with people who don't want to be interviewed you can get some fun responses. And by fun, I don't mean happy times. I mean entertaining. Sometimes scary.

Meredith said...

As the spokesperson for a local utility, the media thing comes with the job.

The best moment came two months after I was hired. Before then, I'd always been a print reporter, so being in front of the cameras was still new and scary. And of course, a huge, controversial story centering on my utility was breaking. To top it off, I was nine months pregnant.

I walked into work (on my technical due date, actually, but the little guy was still content to stay put), and all three local affiliates had cameras set up in the lobby.

Turns out, it was the best interview of my life, and I swear it was because none of the (three young male) reporters wanted to ask me anxiety-provoking questions that would result in me giving birth right there (yeah, I was THAT big.)

I'm done having babies, but I keep a really big pillow in my office, just in case.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Great advice! I had a similar thing happen to me when my Christmas book was released. The reporter called out of the blue from my hometown paper and wanted to do an interview. Yikes! The article turned was very nice and my book went into reprint, but if I could do it over again and be more prepared I would have felt better about it. :)

Patrick Alan said...

Matthew - First thing, don't tell reporters that you like to screw pooches.

Unless you are marketing to pooch screwers.

See, that's why I never give advice, because I always have to qualify it....

Jeffe Kennedy said...

You touched on this - but yeah, don't scramble for links or guess at statistics. Keep a list as you talk and follow up with an email with accurate information. Well worth it to take the time!

Trisha Leigh said...

I can't wait to read the article, and I am quite positive you did not make a fool of yourself. Patrick Alan, on the other hand...

Tawna Fenske said...

Patrick, please post photos of you chirping in your red dress.

Anonymous, I know this is a spam comment, but it made me smile so I'm leaving it up.

Sarah, one of the last pics that appeared of me in the paper made it look like I had 12 chins.

kmullican, now there's a pleasant image!

Matthew, pooch screwing...now there's another lovely image!

Linda G, the photographer showed up this afternoon, and sadly, did not take squid pictures. He did borrow my penis pen though!

Danica, can I have your autograph? :)

Neurotic Workaholic, I'm hoping I did manage to say a few funny things. After all, I'm trying to project myself as a romantic comedy author.

Laura, excellent tip about asking to come back to a question.

Amanda, glad you found it useful.

Stephanie, good luck next time!

Simon, LOL, I do radio spots periodically and am always amazed at how they can edit out all the "ums" and dumb pauses.

Jason, you know what's funny? I used a digital recorder for a long time in college, but gave it up because it just took too @#$% long to transcribe things. Seems like very few of the reporters I interact with use them, either. I understand that for newspaper folks, since their deadlines are tight & they don't have time to listen & transcribe, but I would think magazine journalists might use them more. I love how most longtime reporters have their own brand of shorthand that only they can understand :)

Meredith, will keep it in mind to fake pregnancy if the need arises. Good tip!

Kathi, yeah, in hindsight I wish I'd asked the guy if I could call him back in 5 minutes and taken some time to jot notes. Oh well.

Patrick, you crack me up, dude.

Jeffe, if I had a nickel for every time in that interview I said, "don't quote me on this, but..."

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna