As a journalist, I’m well aware that people are probably more comfortable around second-hand car salespeople. I get it, I really do.
But there’s no need to panic. Unless you are embroiled in the middle of a media storm or a scandal that warrants some sort of investigative journalism – and you’ll know if you are – most magazine interviews are fairly harmless. Those pesky journalists aren’t out to get you – I do so solemnly swear. Here’s how to handle them.
There you are, innocently minding your own business at work, and an email arrives from me – or someone like me – that goes something like this. We work for a magazine or a supplement, we’re writing an article about X or Y, and we’d really like to include some commentary from you in your professional capacity. Or perhaps we want to do a little profile or a Q&A with you.
Maybe you work for an insurance company or bank, and they’re writing a piece about inflation, or maybe your company sells awnings and it’s an article about adding shade to your garden. Or maybe you’re a prominent businesswoman, and they want to pick your brain about women in the workplace.
Here’s what to do.
1 Look for a deadline. Journalists live and breathe deadlines and they will probably have told you how long they have to do a story. If the deadline is tight, understand that it’s probably not their fault. These things are handed down from on high, and are influenced by all kinds of external factors. If it’s impossible for you to participate in the time allotted, say so immediately. You can just say no – and that will allow them to move on to the next person swiftly. If there’s no deadline in the initial approach, ask for one.
2 Immediately go to any comms, marketing or media liaison people who might have to okay your participation, if you can help. I say ‘immediately’, because when journalists have to interview, say, five people in an industry, in the space of two weeks, it really is quite hard to get hold of everyone. They also usually have a couple of stories on the boil – and they will seldom have more than two weeks to turn a story around. Often, that’s a maximum time frame, depending on the frequency of the publication they work for. So they need your answer quickly, and if your Communications department has to approve things, it’s best to discuss it with them at the beginning of the process.
3 Do not insist on a face-to-face interview unless they’re doing a three or four page personal profile, or it’s something very sensitive. Most of the time, journalists need about 200-300 words’ worth of copy from you – maximum. They can get that in a telephonic interview of 10 minutes, tops. I have literally driven 45 minutes to an interviewee, had a five-minute interview with them, and then had to drive 45 minutes back – it was such a waste of my time. You really can do this on the phone.
4 If you don’t want to be interviewed on the phone, ask them to send questions, and answer via email. And whether by phone or by email, always answer in more detail than you think you need to – it’s better to give them too much information than too little.
5 If you’ve undertaken to answer via email, or they’ve set up a telephonic interview for you at a particular time, please honour those commitments. Deadlines really are deadlines. I recently chased a very prominent South African for an interview for three weeks. She stood me up telephonically twice, and completely ignored my texts asking to reschedule, after she had agreed to an interview. It’s rude and unprofessional.
6 Ask if you can see the final story before it’s submitted to check your contribution by all means, but understand that this is a privilege, not a right. If you’re paying for the content, you have the right to authorise it, of course. But pure editorial is not yours to edit. And many publications don’t allow their journalists to show you the story. So if you’re worried you might be misquoted, then set up an email interview from the start – that way you have, in writing, what you submitted to the journalist. And please note – you cannot ask the journalist to amend content that comes from other interviewees!
7 If the journalist is kind enough to let you see the article before they submit the story, please do a quick turnaround of any changes. They probably only have a couple of hours. And if you’re not quick enough, it may be too late.