No matter how much time and effort you put into preparing a CEO for a media interview or speech (researching background information on talking points, anticipating difficult questions and providing answers to them, giving pointers on speaking style and body language), you will never be able to prepare for a PR professional’s worst nightmare: when someone completely goes off script.
Preparing a “loose cannon” for a public or media appearance is hard work, especially when you already have sensitive or controversial talking points at hand. I know from experience that many CEOs find it difficult to remain in control of their emotions during a tough interview, which makes them more likely to veer off course. Here, practice can make perfect. Staged interviews beforehand, during which difficult and unexpected questions are asked, are a good opportunity to rehearse not only the material but also keeping emotions in check.
I have come to somewhat pity the White House press team, because all they seem to be able to do is remain in damage control mode, which is the worst state you can be in when it comes to external communication and messaging. In that case, you need to already have a solid crisis communication strategy and plan in order. Other than that, it’s good old fingers crossed!
A few pointers for successful interviews
- Keep talking points and answers short – main facts and stats – to avoid going off message
- Always keep your target audience in mind and tailor to them
- When challenged, stick to main facts and stats – repeat if necessary
- When taken off course, touch on it briefly (if within scope) and return to key message(s)
- Never ever speculate! Stick to known facts and stats only
- When facts are not clear or known, mention it and offer to come back with details later (if possible)
- Stay clear of personal opinions and avoid showing too many emotions – stay cool, calm and collected (even if only on the outside)