Public Relations Basics: Mastering the Television Interview Process

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During my first television interview, the producer had one piece of advice for me: Don’t use profanity. During my second television interview, the producer had another piece of advice for me: Be controversial. Public relations consultants should take both of pieces of advice to heart. But there’s a lot more to an effective television interview.

A television interview is the pinnacle of success when it comes to public relations. For many clients, a public relations campaign is not truly successful unless it results in at least one national television spot. With the continued proliferation of talking-head shows and manufactured public relations controversies, getting your client a television interview is not as difficult as it used to be. Getting a second television interview, however, is becoming more difficult.

I recently spent an hour on the phone with a veteran television producer/booker to get some insight into guest-booking procedures for television news shows. The producer — who kindly asked to remain anonymous — offered up some interesting advice. I’ve boiled down her insight.

Television producers love controversy, even if you’ve created it yourself for the express purpose of generating publicity. “If someone sends us a national, or even local, newspaper story or television clip about their company that has a controversial edge, we love it,” the producer said. “We want you to come on and deepen the controversy.”

Program hosts are only given part of the story, the producer told me. “Most of us our hosts only know so much about the subject, and we’re the people giving them information and writing the questions for them. We’re out to score ratings by booking interesting and high-profile guests. If the host doesn’t know who you are, you better be exciting or your interview is going to be the only one you do with us.”

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Controversy isn’t the only thing producers look for. “A good story, one that’s topical and impacts our audience, will get you on television,” the producer noted. “But guests should be prepared to justify their appearance by giving out information while not coming off like a shill. If you sound like a PR person, you’re not going to get far on television.”

The producer suggested that guests and public relations consultants should carefully study a show’s format once they’re booked. “I’m tired of guests complaining that they were not treated well by the host, or that they misunderstood the purpose of the segment. Few television shows, beyond the network morning shows and such, offer fluff opportunities for guests. If you’re going to go on a cable news show or network, you should be prepared to answer tough questions, even if the appearance is purely for promotional reasons.”

A guest’s physical appearance — “dress like you belong on television” — is important. More importantly, guests should speak clearly. “We’ve had mumblers on before and I can’t stand it,” the producer said. She also suggested that the worst thing you can do during a television interview is “have a script in mind. I’ve seen guests stumble over a phrase because they were just waiting to pull out a sound bite. The interview process should be organic, and if you can’t speak clearly and concisely about a subject, why are you on television in the first place?”

What about guests who fight back when the host is confrontational? “We love those guests!” the producer said. “As long as the host and guest don’t get personal, we love some intelligent, but excited banter. What we love most is when two guests get into it with each other.”

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind during a television interview? “Listen to the questions,” the producer said. “If you’re not listening to the questions, how can you come off smart?” Don’t go into a television interview thinking you know the questions ahead of time. Be prepared to go “off message” if necessary to answer a question. If you stay on message and come off sounding stupid, you’re not going to be invited back.

And how do you get a television interview in the first place? “10, 15 years ago, getting on television was very difficult, but today it’s not too hard. We have a lot more programming hours to fill and there’s only so much time to find guests. We rely on PR people to send us guests.” The key, the producer said, is to have a guest who can offer exciting insight into current events, or someone who is doing something different and special. “My favorite guests are entrepreneurs who are giving big business a run for their money.”

What about the actual pitch? “Most producers I know want to be pitched by email. I wouldn’t call someone unless you already have a relationship with them, and we’re busy to begin with, so email is best.”

The producer suggested including a short pitch answering these questions: Why should your client be on television? Why should they be on this particular show? Why now, and not a month ago, or two months from now?

Detail your client’s basic biographical background and note whether or not this is your client’s first television interview. “It’s always good to know that someone knows the ropes.”

Guests should be flexible as far as dates go, and you should always note where the guest is based. If your client will be in New York, or Los Angeles, or Atlanta — and that’s when you’re aiming for a television interview — give two weeks lead time. Otherwise, be flexible and let the producer know that your guest can be at a local affiliate or studio with just a few hours notice.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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