We dropped our oldest son off at college Saturday and as we prepared to leave, I gave him my best fatherly advice: “Stay focused on what’s important. Have fun, but remember why you’re here. Go to class, study…and don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read about in the paper.”
I don’t think Laura Steins’s parents ever passed along that last piece of advice to their little girl, who was the focus of an August 16 Washington Post article, Squeaking By on $300,000. In baseball terms, she was a hanging curve, just waiting to be deposited into the right-field stands by the cleanup hitter. And reporter Anne Hull didn’t miss the pitch. You can almost picture her feeling a bit guilty that Ms. Steins just kept talking.
In the interests of length, I won’t go into detail (here’s a link to the article), but the story includes such gems as being months overdue for a visit to her colorist, weekend getaways to the Hamptons where her friends had the good sense to demand anonymity, and a theme party where the guests generally missed the “be careful what you say in front of reporters” lecture.
I have to believe that little voice most of us have was screaming at Laura Steins to think twice about doing this. I can’t even imagine what she hoped to accomplish. Since she lives in a New York City suburb, maybe she thought her friends wouldn’t see an article from a paper a few hundred miles south of her three-acre estate. And maybe – but I really doubt it – she was happy with the way things turned out and nobody in her office avoided making eye contact with her the next day. But that wasn’t the view among the people I know who saw the article. We kinda felt bad for her situation…but more important we questioned her judgment for talking about it.
Here’s what you can learn from Laura Steins’s experience, before you agree to talk to a print reporter (I’ll talk about TV in a future blog):
1. Prepare. Let me repeat. Prepare. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Come up with a sentence or two that clearly communicates that core message. Develop a list of questions you expect the reporter to ask. and write down your answers. Have a friend fire them at you and practice your responses. Read other articles the reporter has written so you understand their normal tone/point of view.
2. Stay on message. Try to control the environment, because you’re sure as heck not going to control the flow or content of the interview. Laura Steins drove her reporter to a party in the Hamptons and brought her home for meals with the kids. That’s not conducive to staying on message.
3. Remember, the reporter is not your friend. You don’t sign her paycheck. You normally don’t get do-overs. Assume nothing is off the record, even if you know them, went to school with them, whatever. Take a deep breath before answering questions. Remember that piece of advice about coming up with some practice questions? Make sure you include tough ones, because they’re not all going to be softballs.
In the final analysis, think things through. If you can’t think of anything good that could come from an interview — or if an interview on one subject could easily take an ugly turn into a different subject — just say No. It’s far preferable to spending a lot of time after the interview runs calling friends, family, and co-workers to apologize.