Learn it, Do it, Teach it: The Power of Giving Back


As a former political reporter, I’ve grilled hundreds of people running for seats at the city, county, state and federal levels. Each August, I get the privilege of using those interview skills to help budding candidates learn how to prepare for media interviews and deal with questions they may face from reporters.

It’s all part of the Michigan Political Leadership Program, a nine-month, bipartisan series of classes and seminars run by the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) at Michigan State University for people who want to get more involved in their communities, usually by running for office. But the skills I help them learn are useful for anyone who wants to communicate clearly and effectively using the news media to disseminate your position.

Tough assignment

If you think media skills come naturally, you haven’t tried it – or been through one of our Martin Waymire training sessions. Our training programs run much like the MPLP events. At the MPLP session, four of us — all journalists and/or public relations practitioners — peppered with questions about why they want to hold office and think they can get elected. We probe their policy positions for weaknesses. We take notes on whether they have good eye contact, wave their hands too much, speak too softly or wear distracting ties and jewelry. And then we give them our critiques. Usually there are several points of praise, but we don’t pull any punches.

For the nearly two dozen fellows, it can be a nerve-wracking day. But we hope they leave with the basic skills they need to be prepared to talk to journalists, whether that’s a reporter from their small-town local weekly or the state’s major newspapers. Even at a time when it’s easy to demonize the media, they are a fact of life for political candidates, and one that can’t be ignored. President Trump’s tweets may make news each day, but less-well-known politicians will need media outlets to get out the word about their positions and who they are.

Be prepared

The key to having effective relations with reporters and editorial boards is to be prepared. Some tips:

  • Do develop and know your key and secondary messages before you walk into the interview.
  • Don’t walk in without having thought through your positions and the reasons for them, and have the facts to back them up.
  • Do research ahead of time to understand what reporters want and need, and what audience you will reach with each media outlet.
  • Do anticipate and prepare for questions that reporters might ask, especially if you have something illegal or embarrassing in your background.
  • Learn to answer questions with the messages you want to get across, and don’t be afraid to pivot by rephrasing the question or moving on to a point you want to make.

During the MPLP training session, we stress to the interviewees that, while it’s OK to tell reporters that you don’t know the answer to a question and will get back to them, saying “no comment” doesn’t get you very far. And, as Roger Martin pointed out in a recent Martin Waymire blog post, lying is out of the question.

It’s also important to avoid jargon. Running for drain commissioner? Try to talk about how homeowners and residents will be affected if you’re elected rather than just discussing land parcels, assessments and culverts. That will make the story easier for the reporter to write and for readers to understand.

Above all, try to offer good quotes and “sound bites.” Those often end up in the headline or help the reporter get your comments in the paper in a way that make you look good. Don’t be afraid to give reporters flavor and color so that they — and their readers — can feel like they know you. And above all, tell the truth. Getting caught in a lie destroys your credibility with reporters and readers alike.

Two-way street

I hope what the many capable MPLP fellows take away from the training is that deciding to step into community activism or politics means interacting with reporters. What’s important to keep in mind is that it’s a two-way street: Reporters need access to you, but that access helps you get across your messages.

It can at times be a contentious relationship. But going into media interviews prepared and with an understanding of the reporters’ need can make it go much better.