Earlier this month, KUSI came calling. KUSI, a popular local independent television station, was looking for some information on the San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA), our public service programs, and a few highlights of what we do in the community. In official professional public relations practitioner terms, this is what we refer to as a "gift." We somewhat regularly prepare (and media train our President and President-Elect) for press interviews regarding Bar initiatives, big events, crisis situations, and hot-button topics, always "expecting the unexpected," however, this felt like a truly rare opportunity. Generally, media moves fairly quickly, but in this situation, we actually had time to prepare, review, and practice our messaging in advance. In addition, we had a chance to talk about the great work lawyers do in our community, promote our Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS), and heighten the Bar's visibility (one of the main objectives outlined in our Communications Plan). This was rare, indeed, but it got me thinking that regardless of the timing or the topic, there are a few universal practices, in my experience, that make a TV interview go well. At the very least, they make your designated spokesperson/bar leader feel a bit more comfortable before their big break.
Preparation is key.
My first step in preparing for a TV interview is to get as much information from the television station as they have available or are willing to give at that moment. I will ask who will be doing the interview, what questions they intend to ask, if they will be interviewing anybody else on the same topic, and how the story idea was generated. Once I have this information, I will send the producer or reporter I am working with background information that may help the station prepare for the interview — whether it is links to pages on our website, statements or press releases from the SDCBA, or other information sources not related to the Bar that may help shape their story.
Our spokesperson (at the SDCBA, the President or his/her designee) always recieves talking points prior to any interview, as far in advance as possible. For television, the talking points are very clear and concise, and completely free of "legal-ease." It is important to remember that our Bar venacular and how we talk about matters in the legal world doesn't always translate well when addressing the public — whose day-to-day vocabulary likely doesn't include terms like "the bench," "3Ls," and "access to justice." Clear, clean and concise talking points also help your spokesperson nail the key messages, and allows them to add their own voice.
Review specifics with your spokesperson.
Our leaders are all amazing — balancing all that they do in their practices and personal lives with all that they do for the Bar in their relatively short leadership terms. While most of them know and can speak to your organization's vision, and short and long term focus and goals, we are the ones who know all of the nuances of our programs and initiatives. For example, our President may know that diversity and inclusion pipeline programs are a priority for your Bar, but we know that 32 firms are participating in our Diversity Fellowship Program, which represents 10 percent growth for the program over the last two years. In addition to knowing the general message, your spokeperson should know a few key details and facts. You never want them to be unprepared to answer the question of "How do plan to do that?"
For every talking point, it helps to prepare your spokesperson with some of the tactics that your organization employs. Generally, you don't want your spokesperson to get caught up, especially on camera, in the nitty gritty details of anything, but you also don't want them to talk in vague generalities and come across as uninvolved or dispassionate. They should have some "go-tos" that they feel comfortable with based on the direction and topic of the interview.
Practice. And then practice again.
Generally, I've found that litigators make great on-air spokespersons — they're ready to handle any question that may come their way. But regardless of who your spokesperson is and their practice type, they should know how to answer a reporter's question with one of your key messages. If your spokesperson doesn't have live television interview experience, you may want to practice on camera (or in our case, on an iPhone) so they can see and hear the topics they are comfortable speaking on and also where they falter. In practice, I will usually ask my spokesperson some of the most absurd, unlikely questions in an effort to teach them how to come back to our talking points. For an extreme example, a question like "What's the SDCBA's position on the death penalty?" can be returned to message point with something like "While we don't have an official position on the death penalty, we have an extraordinary panel of criminal defense attorneys available through our Lawyer Referral Service who know and can explain the nuances of the death penalty under California law." While it may seem like a silly exercise, asking the most ridiculous questions in practice means that anything the reporter might ask will seem like a softball in comparison, and something your spokesperson should be comfortable answering.
With all that being said, all of the preparation in the world may not matter on live television — there are times when you're going to get questions that can't be answered, or the reporter takes an angle that might not be in the best interest of the Bar. However, the more you prepare and practice, the more comfortable your spokesperson should be in delivering your message live. I've found that being at the interview with the spokesperson also helps, as you can straighten a tie, go over some last minute points, reassure them that they look like a million bucks and ask the reporter directly just before the interview what they plan to ask. And also, just because sometimes, every star needs a little extra support behind the scenes.