A few months ago, Wired Magazine contacted author Brandon Sanderson to ask if they could do a major piece about him. Sanderson agreed. He took the journalist out for dinner and answered his questions. He even let the journalist stay at his house, meet his family, and talk with his kids.
The whole time, the journalist was friendly and constantly asked questions.
If you know anything about journalists, you know how this story ends. When the article came out last week, it was one of the most mean-spirited hit pieces I have ever read.
The journalist seemed frustrated that Sanderson had no skeletons in his closet. Brandon Sanderson is happily married. He loves to write and talk about writing. His readers love him and his books. He makes millions of dollars writing eight hours per day every day. How boring!
The journalist, frustrated that Sanderson didn’t say anything incriminating, attacked Sanderson’s writing, family, appearance, religion, fans, city, and even his taste in food! The article dripped with condescension and envy. Sanderson’s fans were described as “smelly man boys.” Sanderson’s children were described as having “bad taste.” The Wired journalist talks about Sanderson’s wife, Emily, multiple times but refuses to name her, calling her “the wife” at one point.
If I could summarize the article in one sentence, it would be this: “How dare this nerd write nerdy books for fellow nerds! Doesn’t he have taste?”
Imagine how blindsided Brandon Sanderson must have felt to read that article after showing the journalist such kindness. Imagine how it would feel to see your children publicly ridiculed simply because they’re your children. All the while, you haven’t done or said anything wrong or stupid.
Interacting with the media is tricky.
Authors want publicity for their books. They want help spreading the word. They long to see their books on TV, in magazines, and on websites. But most reporters don’t care about authors or books. They care about attention. Journalists get paid for clicks and page views, and if they can get more attention by attacking you, they will.
- How do you handle a hostile media interview?
- How do you avoid giving the media something to use against you?
- How do you get the media to share your message rather than twisting it?
My first media interview occurred when I was in high school. I had purchased 50 tickets for the opening night of the Lord of the Rings movie, and I re-sold them to my high school friends. We all showed up to the theater in costumes, and when one of the local TV stations heard, they wanted to interview me for the nightly news.
Since then, I’ve either been interviewed or had my photo published in the San Antonio Express-News, Texas Tribune, Austin American-Statesman, and World News, among others. My photo was once on the front page of the Houston Chronicle, and our local NBC affiliate once sent a news crew to my office for an interview. Later, they interviewed me at my house. I also gave many radio and podcast interviews when my book came out.
I would estimate that perhaps half of the media coverage was published by reporters who disagreed with me. Some of them were hostile.
I’ve had experience interacting with the media and have talked with many journalists. I also completed political media training back when I thought I would have a political career.
In this article, I want to share what I have learned about interacting with the media.
All Publicity is Good Publicity
If you are trying to sell books, all publicity is good publicity. The hit piece on Sanderson definitely attracted attention and made Wired a lot of money, which was their goal.
But Brandon Sanderson’s fans are in a tizzy over that article. YouTube videos criticizing the article and defending Sanderson have amassed hundreds of thousands of views. Once people saw Sanderson’s gracious response to the Wired article, even more readers rallied to defend him.
I read one Tweet (please embed) from someone who said they were going to start reading Brandon Sanderson’s books after reading his gracious response to the article.
I am going to start reading you work after reading this response to a negative article. (I don’t understand the need for people who are not fans of or familiar with genres are compelled to critique them)
Your compassion is moving. Thank you. Any advice what I should read 1st?
— Rod Hillen (@yendorcire) March 24, 2023
From a book-sales perspective, even this negative article was positive.
If you have an opportunity to be interviewed, don’t shy away from it just because it might be a hostile media interview, but think twice before you allow a reporter, even a senior editor at Wired, to be around your kids.
Brandon Sanderson is one of the most successful authors alive. He’s the most popular fantasy author. No mean-spirited hit piece can change his readers’ love for him and his writing.
With all that preamble out of the way, here are some tips for interacting with journalists.
Understand What Journalists Want
Journalists are biased against boring. As the old saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads,” so reporters constantly search for the angle that shows the most blood. If you want the media to talk about you, you must be interesting.
Journalists are also looking for the unusual. “Dog Bites Man” is a boring story, but “Man Bites Dog” will get clicks.
You must provide an interesting or unusual story if you want media coverage.
The media loves interesting, and interesting can sometimes be as simple as speaking without saying “uh.” Clear, simple sentences get published in print and aired on TV.
In one of my TV interviews, the reporter asked all kinds of questions. Finally, I said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” As soon as I said it, I knew it would be the quote they used, and sure enough, that’s what ran on the news that night.
Practicing your talking points before your interview will make your answers more concise.
To calm your nerves, practice your talking points by giving interviews on friendly podcasts so you get comfortable answering questions.
Don’t Trust Nice
Every journalist I have ever interacted with has been incredibly friendly… to my face. Wired’s senior editor was nice to Sanderson’s face, and Brandon had no idea a hit piece was on the way.
But you must internalize this truth: journalists don’t care about you. They care about the story. To a reporter, you’re just a source. They’re friendly because they want you to relax, lower your guard, and naturally provide an interesting quote.
If you are crying in your front yard because your house burned down, a journalist will interview you about how you feel, but they will never follow up the next day to help clean up. Remember, they make money telling people about your burning house. It’s their job, and you are yet another sad story they can share to get clicks or views that pay.
This struck home to me when I bumped into a journalist the day after she interviewed me. During our interview, she was super friendly. But the next day, I was a non-person to her. She had her quote, and I didn’t matter.
Some journalists are nice, but there is no way to know if a reporter is being genuinely friendly.
One CBS Radio reporter who interviewed me was nice to me even after the interview. The day after the interview, we were both at an ongoing event and would chat cordially from time to time. While I was acting friendly, I always had my guard up because I knew he was there for work. Everything is on the record unless you have a friend in common.
The Medium is the Message
Public relations people often say, “The medium is the message.” In other words, how the message is conveyed is as important as what is said. For example, how you look on TV is as important (if not more important) than what you say. How you sound on a podcast or radio show is as important as what you say.
In the historic presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won. On camera, however, Nixon was sweaty and nervous. Kennedy, on the other hand, was wearing makeup and looked calm and collected. Voters who watched the debate thought Kennedy won.
The medium also influences what the journalist is looking for. A long-form podcast may want you to give a 30-minute explanation of a topic. A TV interview may need a 30-second explanation of that same topic.
In order to provide a 30-minute explanation, you need to be well-versed in the details of that topic. A 30-second sound bite requires you to know how to distill your main point into a simple statement.
A newspaper reporter may be looking for “one good sentence” from you. TV reporters don’t want context or nuance. They want focused heat. If you want reporters to quote you, be brief.
TV personalities who are used to soundbite communication often struggle on long-form shows like The Joe Rogan Experience. Rogan asks tough questions and gives his guests as much time as they want to answer. His episodes regularly last three hours.
When you practice, you need to practice for the medium as much as you practice your message.
Keep Your Cool
If you lose your mind and start shouting at the journalist, that will be the clip they’ll use.
For TV interviews, your smile is key, especially when you’re hit with hard questions. The camera will focus on you, and the audience will take their cues from you. Smile confidently, even if you are angry, afraid, or anxious. It’s easier to act your way into a new feeling than to feel your way into a new action.
Forcing yourself to smile will help you keep your emotions under control. You don’t want to publicly lose your cool. More practice will make you less likely to get flustered.
Keep Your Own Recording
I once worked with an author who had been a state representative. He was so tired of being misquoted by the media that he brought his own tape recorder to interviews. When the journalist turned on her tape recorder, he turned on his and set it next to hers. Once he started keeping a recording, he magically stopped being misquoted.
Nowadays, you don’t need a tape recorder because you can use your phone.
Journalists can lose face for misquoting sources. If you don’t have your own recording, any discrepancies will be a he-said-she-said situation, and the journalist will get the benefit of the doubt. But if you have your own recording, the journalist knows you have evidence against them if they misquote you.
If a journalist ever objects to you recording the conversation, stand up and leave. Keeping your own recording won’t keep them from being hostile or attacking you, but it can prevent them from lying about what you said.
Pause Before Responding
Most interactions with the media are pre-recorded and highly edited so journalists can shape the narrative and hone the presentation. If your interview is pre-recorded, take time to pause and collect your thoughts before answering a question.
If you do, you’ll often give a better, clearer quote, which the journalist wants. Your pause will also reduce the likelihood of you saying something stupid, which is what you want. Learning to pause and collect your thoughts takes practice.
If your interview is live, you’ll need to maintain the pace of the conversation, which also requires practice. Friendly podcast interviews will help you learn to maintain the pace of a live interview.
Don’t Repeat “Poison” Words
People don’t watch TV or listen to the radio very carefully. Their worlds are full of distractions, from kids in the car to the constant ping of the phone. Diverted attention means people don’t hear what you think they’re hearing.
For example, in order to process a negative word or phrase a person must focus. If you say, “I’m not a crook,” the word that jumps out is “crook.” PR professionals are trained never to repeat a “poison” word like crook. Instead, they state the same information positively: “I’m an honest man.”
Instead of saying, “The toxins leaking from our train cars into the water will be fully cleaned up.” You should say, “We are committed to ensuring that the water is 100% clean.”
Your distracted audience will hear the first sentence as “toxins water.” The same distracted listener will hear the second sentence as “water clean.” Even though the substance of the two sentences is the same, people will hear them differently.
Don’t say, “I don’t use a ghostwriter.” Instead, say, “I wrote every word myself.”
Do Your Research
Preparation and practice are key to success. You will be far more motivated to prepare for the interview if you know it will be a hostile media interview.
Do your research because you don’t want to be ambushed. What publication is requesting the interview? What kind of articles do they typically write? How have they treated people like you in the past?
Are they my kind of nerd? Wired nerds are different from sci-fi nerds. According to the Wired article, the day Brandon Sanderson broke the record for the biggest Kickstarter campaign in the world, no one at Wired had any idea who he was. Not all nerds are the same.
Identify Your Goal
Before agreeing to an interview request, be clear about your goals. For example, if your goal is to promote your upcoming book, mention it by name in every answer. That way, no matter which answer the reporter publishes, it will include a shout-out to your book.
If you don’t think accepting the interview will help your goals, decline. It’s a free country, and journalists can’t force you to give a quote.
Ask Your Own Questions
Before your interview starts, ask questions about the publication’s target audience. Ask about the goal of the article. Try to get a feel for the angle the journalist is aiming for. Sometimes their answers will be coy, and sometimes they will be direct.
One reporter told me, “I keep getting this certain kind of sound bite. But what I need is this other kind of sound bite.” I got him the recording he needed, and he used it in his news report.
Some folks have a romantic notion that journalists follow the facts wherever they lead, but I’ve never met a journalist like that.
When I took journalism in college, the other students didn’t want to follow the facts. They wanted to change the world. Unbiased journalism is an aspirational myth. Most journalists start with an angle or opinion they want to present. To use the modern vernacular, they have a narrative they want to support.
Realize that the journalist has a narrative they are trying to support by interviewing you. If you know that angle going in, you can give the reporter what she wants if you share her goal.
If you and the journalist have opposing goals, you’ll know what to avoid. It’s important to find out whether the journalist wants to ridicule your religion, genre, or fans before you give the interview.
How do you thwart the journalist’s opposing goal?
Remember that journalists are biased against boring. When they ask about private or protected topics, give answers that are as boring as possible. Give them nothing to use against you and stay on message. Effective communicators can use interest as a weapon. Choose the direction of the interview by giving interesting answers to the things you want the journalist to cover.
Don’t Neglect the Minor Leagues
One of the practices I teach in my course How to Get Booked as a Podcast Guest is called “trading up the chain,” which I learned from the excellent book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (Affiliate Link). Despite its sensational title, it’s the most useful PR book I’ve ever read.
Trading up the chain, as I teach it, is a method of stepping up the podcast ladder.
Begin your media tour by giving interviews on small, start-up podcasts with few listeners. In that more obscure environment, you’ll be able to practice in relative safety. You’ll still get nervous before your first interview, but you’ll be less nervous about ten podcast listeners than 10 million. As you improve your skills on those smaller podcasts, you can start pitching larger shows.
By the time you’re giving TV and radio interviews, you’ll have the experience of interviewing with different hosts and answering various questions. By being faithful in the small shows, you prove your ability to trade up to the big shows.
Additionally, getting booked on a big show is easier if the host knows you were a good guest on smaller podcasts.
Difficult Questions Give You a Chance to Shine
I once had a hostile media interview with a journalist who didn’t care for my book. He hit me with one hard question after another. But by that time in my author journey, I had been in many similar interviews and had been asked similar questions. I was prepared with good answers.
As the interview progressed, he softened. I may have even won him over to my side. I could almost hear the gears turning in his head as the tone and content of his questions changed. Interviews like that make all the work worth it because if you aren’t willing to stand behind your ideas, who will?
Reporters ask tough questions because it’s their job. Answering their tough questions is your job. You can’t hit the ball if you’re afraid of the pitcher.
The Cost of Success is Notoriety
Obscurity comes with safety. If no one knows who you are, no one wants to learn more about you.
But the more books you sell, the more envious people, even journalists, will become. Success leads to Envy. I also leads to curiosity, which leads to media exposure.
If you don’t want the notoriety of being an author, consider becoming an editor. Editors are often paid better and rarely have to worry about journalistic hit pieces.
Finally, we shouldn’t blame journalists for giving us sensationalistic hit pieces because that is what we click on, read, and share with our friends. We may be tempted to get high and mighty and look down on journalists for giving us what we have asked for, but writing articles people want to read is their job.
If you want to read a great interview with Brandon Sanderson, I recommend this article by Esquire Magazine. It was published around the same time as the Wired article but was much more even-handed.
Podcast guesting gives you the following:
- a high-credibility way to reach new audiences
- the influence of a podcast without the work of starting your own
- access to influencers you couldn’t reach any other way
You don’t need to hire a PR firm for $3000 to schedule your podcast interviews. You just need to know the secrets of pitching podcasts yourself. And once you start nailing interviews, podcasters will start contacting you to invite you on their shows.
In this course, you’ll learn how to become a sought-after podcast guest who has access to thought leaders and readers alike.
If you are ready to get your book the attention it deserves, this course is for you.
This course is also included as part of the Book Launch Blueprint.
Becoming a massively successful self-published author can be challenging. Even one missing link in an otherwise perfect plan can kill your results. In Why Authors Fail, award-winning author Derek Doepker reveals the 17 biggest mistakes authors make that sabotage their success and offers practical steps to fix each mistake.