Media Interview Numbers Game

For spokespeople, being as repetitive as possible in a media interview is generally accepted as a pathway to success.  Why?  Perhaps the answer lies in 7s and 13s.

A spokesperson can reasonably expect a broadcast media interview to last around seven minutes.  An interview with a newspaper or blog lasts a little longer, about thirteen minutes, since that medium allows for deeper analysis and probing.  

These numbers have not been statistically validated – they come from my own experiences.  In more than a decade of coaching, I’ve never had anyone vehemently disagree with those averages (so perhaps they’re anecdotally validated).  Nor has anyone really challenged the other side of those numbers, the average output.

The seven-minute broadcast interview is typically truncated to a seven-second sound bite of the spokesperson’s main position within the report.  The thirteen-minute print interview?  A spokesperson is lucky if one attributed quote is more than thirteen words.  The rest of the media story is typically filled with “texture” to round out the subject:  an opposing point of view, “person-on-the-street” reactions, related data and facts, etc.  

In fact…for a humorous yet instructional take on television news, check out this video by a BBC satirist, while it’s still available on YouTube.  Rated R for one f-bomb….

In summary:  seven minutes down to seven seconds; thirteen minutes down to thirteen words.  If you accept these averages, than you must also accept the value of repeating your agenda during those interviews.  Repetition provides the best chance of inserting your key point-of-view into these media stories.  Languishing on less-essential information reduces the chance of your key information being reported.

A few caveats to being repetitive in media interviews:

  • It will only work if your content is relevant to the interview and compelling.  If the reporter’s angle is “candy leads to child obesity” and your key messages only cover the fruity-tooty new flavor of jelly bean, your preparation was insufficient.  Likewise, if your key topic is bland in presentation, you can bet it will be left on the cutting-room floor, perhaps in favor of a quote from outside your main agenda.
  • The practice may feel manipulative, but the media has the ultimate power of the editing scalpel.  That power must also be reconciled with the need to provide captivating, often sensational content to viewers/readers.  Therefore editing is not always just and the playing field is not always balanced.  Most reporters would agree with that.  
  • I depart from other coaches/trainers when they reinforce “staying on message” as a verbatim mandate.  Repeating verbatim messages gets stale quickly, becomes fairly obvious and puts spokespeople in a really uncomfortable position.  I have found more success in coaching repetition of three well-rehearsed concepts, rather than rote messages.  More on this in a future post…

As always, I welcome your comments below.  You also always have the option of submitting questions to the “ask the communications coach” feature (or the “ask the crisis manager” feature) through the contact / ask tab.

4 thoughts on “Media Interview Numbers Game”

    1. Good point, Evert. Repetition of messages is more acceptable in an edited interview. For live interviews, repetition of your theme or concepts will work better. (I prefer the latter for both.)

  1. I like the numbers example as a good way of explaining the interview to print/broadcast process to the spokesperson.

    I've always media trained to themes/concepts because repeating "memorized" messages comes out canned and 99 percent of the time ends up on the cutting room floor. Also, if you provide canned spokespeople who only parrot messaging to reporters , they won't call you again. Reporters want an interview to at least "feel" authentic.

    If you trust your spokesperson, you can get them solid on the messaging and then tell them to be their best professional self. It's the quips and anecdotes that typically get included as quotes, so those little off-hand/unplanned comments need to be on message too.

    1. I totally agree, John. It's better for a spokesperson to feel confident about key subjects than to memorize/recall the right words.

      I have a hunch that the history of the "stay on (verbatim) message" mantra dates back to measurements of PR success in terms of ad equivalency. Those days may be behind us. (I hope!) I'm not sure we communications coaching folks fully adapted to the change.

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