Journalists get inundated with offers to interview company CEOs and most are turned down because the pitch is missing a crucial component – you need a news hook to create quality coverage.
The temptation for top-tier management to talk to the media is all too great when a flick through the papers unearths countless company profile opportunities, especially in the quality press.
Sometimes PR agencies find themselves under pressure to line up interviews because the boss has flown into the country especially, or is keen to fill a rare gap in their schedule, only to fall foul of the fact that there isn’t really a story for journalists to write about.
Then there’s the opportunity to be a talking head commenting on topical events in return for a bit of indirect brand awareness. A tempting prospect, but beware the pitfalls of a media backlash – especially if you happen to head up the British Sandwich Association and you’re on Newsnight discussing a no-deal Brexit.
Exceptions to the news hook rule are rare. If your client happens to be a juggernaut like Tesla, Facebook or Amazon, the likelihood is media outlets will jump at the chance to score time with Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos. Not only are they always in the news, more often than not they are the news.
Why dangling a carrot can be crucial
At Little Red Rooster we see CEO interviews as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience, but we’re mindful to explore all possible news angles and pre-agree them with a client, rather than blindly offering someone up to a journalist and hoping for the best.
It’s got to be a great interview for the brand and a great interview for the journalist, and that means having a CEO prepared to dangle a few carrots or perhaps court a little controversy… within reason.
So from a positive PR perspective, what could that be? Perhaps the brand is launching an exciting new product, but they decide to hold something back that reporters will only discover during an interview with the company CEO.
Maybe it’s a forthcoming co-branding collaboration you can drip feed details about during the chat so select members of the media go away with something of an exclusive. It could even be an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet to rivals or perhaps react to something they’ve announced by revealing details of your own product or service.
Whatever route you go down, always be strategic. Try to be strict with the interview time you afford a journalist, but never militant. As a rough guide it’s amazing how many words a top writer can squeeze out of a 15-minute slot, whereas 30 minutes plus is probably overkill unless it’s for the cover of a prestigious glossy like GQ.
Be prepared to go off script
You can steer a journalist as much as you want, and this is also where great relationships between the PR agency and press come into play, but to think they haven’t done their research on the boss and the brand is incredibly naive.
More often than not they’ll walk into a room knowing what will make a great story and will go to every length to get the line they want. The key is to be prepared and avoid looking red-faced.
“As Metro tech editor I got the chance to interview Amazon founder Jeff Bezos,” says journalist James Day. “He was in London to launch the brand’s latest e-reader, but there was no way I was going to let the opportunity pass without quizzing him about his more bizarre business ventures and interests.
“Rather than repelling questions about rumours, rivals, uncomfortable legal battles, his incredible wealth, beating others into space and why he decided to spend $42million building a clock in the side of a mountain, he embraced every single one of them.
“Whether it was his decision or he was very well advised by his team, nothing seemed off limits and the interview was all the better for it. I got what I wanted and Amazon got unbelievable coverage for the launch of a new product.”
Pre-empting the interview
Even if it’s been specifically stated that journalists shouldn’t delve into a particular area, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and extracting the oddest details can make for the best colour in an interview.
Unless you’re a mind reader or you’ve asked for questions in advance – not best practice, but acceptable in extreme cases – you won’t always know exactly what a CEO is going to be asked, but you can pre-empt things with your own careful preparation and research.
Brushing up on current affairs and any trends or issues in the industry ensures you come across as relevant, and can offer compelling answers. Otherwise it could mean being caught with your trousers down and lead to some embarrassing headlines – or worse, none at all.
As narcissistic as it sounds, always carry out an extensive online search for articles mentioning the CEO or the brand. That way you know what is already out in the public domain and whether any alleged controversies could lead to awkward questions. To reiterate, an interview is an opportunity, not an inconvenience, so it could be a chance to set the record straight.
It also pays to get the story of your personal life in order. Rather than squirming when someone asks about home life, it could be a chance to come across as less robotic, more human and build an empathetic relationship with a journalist. Despite being the Prime Minister, this is something Theresa May almost always seems to get horribly wrong and her public persona invariably suffers as a result.
Lastly, have some answers lined up for those super-quick Q&A oddballs that might get thrown your way if there’s some time left on the clock.
Examples include: what books are on your shelf? Who’s the most memorable person you’ve met and why? Or why do you or don’t you have kids? Ricky Gervais always nails this by deflecting the attention away from him – a trump card if you find yourself treading on eggshells and need an escape route.
Stay savvy by doing your research, pre-empting the interview, getting your story straight and deciding on some juicy carrots to dangle, and odds are it will lead to coverage a client can be proud of.
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