If you’ve ever been on a blind date, you know it can be a harrowing experience. You’re thrust into a situation — one you may not even want to be in — and the only information you usually have is second hand. You want to make a good impression — unless you’re trying to get home early — so you have to be prepared. A face-to-face media interview or in-person meeting with a journalist is a lot like a blind date. Both parties want the media interview/meeting to go well and both parties have their own set of expectations. To help prepare public relations consultants for a “professional blind date,” I’ve come up with a handy checklist of what do–and what not to do.
If you’re going on television, wear a business suit. That goes for both men and women. If you’re having your picture taken, wear what you would normally wear to the office. If you’re a public relations consultant holding a meeting, either wear a suit or business casual. Clothing should be clean and pressed. You should groom yourself appropriately.
I once had a meeting with a public relations consultant, a young woman I’d spoken to on the phone a number of times but never met in person. We agreed to have a drink after work on a Friday. I expected the “affair” to be casual; I wore slacks and a polo shirt. She looked like she was about to go to a rock concert. I found it oddly unprofessional and wondered if she dressed that way around her clients.
Journalists are detail-oriented and find strange ways to weave information into stories. I was once interviewed by a German magazine. I was told I was being featured as part of a larger piece about the dot-com bust. I showed up for the interview wearing black shoes, black pants, a black shirt, a black leather jacket, black leather gloves, and a black knit hat. It was cold outside and these were my only clean clothes. When the article was published I had a German friend translate it for me and the lead talked about my outfit and how I was dressed appropriately for someone who was the “harbinger of death” for dot-coms.
2. How You Act and What You Do
We all have personal quirks, but professionalism often means keeping our individualism in check. I now take great strides to temper my language; it’s just not appropriate to talk like a sailor in a business environment. Business etiquette is important. You can still be yourself, but you can do so while acting in a universally acceptable way.
If you meet for someone for drinks, contain your liquor intake. f you’re having lunch or dinner, act like you’re meeting your in-laws for the first time. I met one public relations consultant for lunch and watched him woof down a platter of chicken wings in about three minutes. This same guy was also extremely rude to the waitstaff and to me, which said something about his character, or lack thereof.
When I did that interview with the German magazine, I met the writer in my neighborhood outside of the subway. We went into a corner store where I bought two packs of cigarettes. We then had lunch; I didn’t even finish my meal. To my surprise, the article painted a portrait of a chain-smoking fat guy dressed in black who stuffed his face. What the writer didn’t mention was that he also bought two packs of cigarettes and while I nibbled on my food, he scarfed down soup, salad, and a sandwich.
Every action you make, whether during a media interview or meeting, could end up in an article or swaying someone’s opinion. Be yourself, but act professionally.
3. What You Say and How You Say It
I’ve made some rather dumb comments to journalists; when you get that “what the heck are you talking about?” look, you know you’ve screwed up. Be careful with your words. Make sure you know what is on- and off-the-record. If you’re being recorded and you want to go off-the-record, ask the interviewer to stop the tape.
How you get your message across is also quite important. I used to mumble quite a bit. Mumblers make for bad interviews, as if they’re not quite sure about what they’re saying. If you’re being interviewed, it’s important to make eye contact and to employ positive body language. I once interviewed a CEO who kept putting his head in his hands and rubbing his eyes. It did not inspire confidence.
Understand the purpose of a meeting beforehand. Launching into a pitch over drinks may be inappropriate. But if you’ve only got 15 minutes in someone’s office, launching into a pitch may be exactly what the journalist wants you to do. Try to stay on topic. Small talk should only last about ten minutes before you get down to business.
Some quick tips on what to talk about — and what not to talk about — during a media interview or meeting:
— Don’t complain about work. Definitely no “sob stories.”
— Don’t get too personal.
— Don’t ask too many questions. That’s the journalist’s job.
— Don’t kiss butt, but a little flattery never hurts.
— Thank the person for taking the time to talk to you.
— Stay on topic.
— If the meeting is just a get-together, talk about general issues that involve your company/client. Get specific when the opening presents itself.
These days a lot of public relations takes place remotely. We use the phone and email more than we meet people in person. But face-to-face time is still important. Looking in someone’s eyes, sharing a meal with them, or just knocking back a few drinks is still the best way to built solid relationships in the public relations industry. Your appearance, your behavior, and what you say is always important in a professional atmosphere. Like that blind date, you want to make sure that if you ask for a second date, the other party will say “yes.”
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.