Winning the Political Game: Interview Dos and Don’ts

An interview with a member of the news media can help or hurt a candidate or a political cause. 

Except for the most seasoned political operatives, careful preparation is required before participating in a news media interview — whether it is on the phone, across a desk, or in front of a TV camera or a radio microphone.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Think about your goals and objectives, the audience you will be reaching, and the messages you need to deliver to further your goals.
  • Try to go into every interview knowing in advance the reporter’s story angle and how your key messages can be woven into it.
  • Write down each key message and discuss or rehearse your key points with another person, preferably a communications professional.  
  • With TV and radio, speak in sound bites. Think, what is the headline? How can I state my point succinctly?
  • When possible, especially in more lengthy interviews with newspaper reporters, use symbols, stories, anecdotes, to illustrate your point. Explain how the issue impacts real people. But keep returning to the main messages you want the audience to fully understand.
  • Without a clear understanding of what “off the record” means, don’t go there. The interview begins the moment you are within hearing distance of the reporter and ends when you are out of hearing range.
  • Never guess. If you don’t know the precise answer, offer to get back to the reporter once you’ve confirmed the answer. Then do it.
  • Never say “no comment.” If you are asked information that is proprietary, simply say so and bridge to a key message. Example: “I’m not able to release that proprietary information, but what I can tell you is …KEY MESSAGE.”
  • Never repeat a negative question in your response, such as: “No, we do not think taking contributions from that special interest group was a huge mistake …” Instead, answer with an affirmative response such as, “Citizens and organizations have the right to contribute to good government, and all of our contributors are carefully vetted . . .”
  • Pause to think before answering. This is especially important for television.

Other television tips:

  • Assume the mike is always on; it probably is.
  • Look at the reporter when responding, not the camera.
  • Dress appropriately. Don’t be casual and certainly not sloppy.
  • If the TV crew comes to your office for a feature or positive interview, look for a setting with a helpful background, such as a campaign banner.