Air War College is part of The Air University- click to close

Visit The Air University

Communication Engagement

You have your data points. You know your messages. You've rehearsed responses with your public affairs team and done a final check in the mirror, looking for anything out of place. What now?

Establish interview expectations to facilitate a productive discussion. Your Public Affairs Office will coordinate interview expectations as part of setting up an engagement. It's good practice to reiterate expectations as part of the ground rules at the beginning of an interview. Be very clear about what you will or will not talk about, and remember Public Affairs can take questions outside of your area of expertise for future coordination. You have no control over the questions you are asked, but you have 100 percent control over how you respond.

Tell the truth--always. The truth may hurt, but lies are deadly. Give a direct answer when asked a direct question, even if the answer is, "I don't know," or "I'm sorry, I can't answer that question." In cases where you have information you can't provide, give a reason if possible: "I'm sorry, but I'm sure you understand we don't discuss all the specific capabilities of a given weapon system." You will come across as honest and forthright.

Establish interview expectations to facilitate a productive discussion.
U.S. Air Force photo by
Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez

Ensure your audience receives the important information. An interview is not a passive affair where the subject merely responds to questions. Rather, it's a dialogue requiring the active participation of both parties. Even an experienced, professional reporter may come into an interview without a full or accurate understanding of the real issues at hand. When this happens, it will become apparent in the course of an interview. If you feel an interview is heading off course, there are several techniques you can use:

Hook. The reporter may not understand or know the entire story, whereas you likely have months or even years of experience. A hook grabs the reporter's (and the audience's) attention right from the start:

"First, the focus needs to be ..."

"What concerns me even more ..."

"I need the public to understand ..."

Bridge. Keep your communication objective in the forefront. Bridges can help you respond to a reporter's question and then transition to additional points the public needs to understand. Bridges may be implied, but most can be identified by the use of a conjunction:

Response: "No, that information's not available yet," (bridge) "but I can tell you ..."

Response: "That question is outside my lane, so let me refer you to the judge advocate." (bridge) "Now, let me explain ..."

Flag. Help the audience identify the key point(s) by emphasizing them with your tone of voice, facial expressions or physical gestures.

"There are three new programs (vocal emphasis) we've started this year to enhance flight safety." (said while also holding up three fingers)

These techniques will help you drive the interview towards the information you need your audience to know, but don't forget to answer the reporter's original question. Similar to providing messages without data, using these techniques without answering the actual question will appear evasive.

Show your human side to establish a connection with the audience.
U.S. Navy photo by
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel M. Young

Remember to be your professional self. Showing your human side goes a long way toward establishing a connection. It's challenging enough to communicate effectively, without the added pressure of trying to imitate someone whose personality may be vastly different from yours. You do want to adjust to the situation--your particular sense of humor might be out of place at a crash scene, for instance. On the other hand, there is no need to robotically recite responses.

Assert your expertise. There's a reason you are the one being interviewed. Your background, knowledge and experiences led to your selection as the spokesperson. Don't hesitate to draw on personal anecdotes that illustrate what you have to say. "Been there, done that," is a great credibility builder.

Consider "off the record" situations carefully. There is always a risk that information you share with the media will be directly attributed. Again, coordinate with your Public Affairs Office well ahead of time to discuss interview boundaries.

Say what needs saying, and then stop. Be aware of the reporter who stays silent, encouraging you to ramble or dilute your original message. It's human nature to want to fill those conversation lulls--don't!

Stay in your lane, and answer questions appropriately. Speak to what you know and what you do; don't address issues beyond your area or level of responsibilities. If necessary, offer to connect the reporter with additional subject matter experts if there are related issues they need to explore. Your public affairs team can follow up on such arrangements.

Get your message across. Come to an interview prepared with messages and find opportunities to insert them; always fully respond to the reporter's questions. Pre-planned messages triggered by a question will result in the delivery of accurate, concise and understandable information.

Correct the record. If the interviewer has inaccurate information, or asserts an incorrect conclusion, respectfully correct it. Failure to do so can be interpreted later as acceptance or worse, an endorsement.

It's ok to pause before responding to a question. Dead time is seldom aired on the news, and silences won't be quoted in print. Even if your interview is live, a short pause will help you make a thoughtful response. Most reporters are concerned with honesty and accuracy and they'll appreciate you thinking through your response.

Avoid the cliche, "no comment." There are two reasons for this. First, you would appear evasive, uncooperative or as if you are hiding something. If the request is for information that can't be released, say so and explain why (classification, privacy, etc.). Second, you don't want to give up an opportunity to respond with a message.

Practice your response to provide accurate, concise information.
U.S. Air Force photo by
Senior Airman Dennis Sloan

Don't get defensive. When dealing with mistakes, misconduct or accidents, questions will often be pointed and in a negative tone. There can be a tendency to take this personally--don't. Remember the information you need your audience to understand and stick to your messages.

Don't repeat negative phrasing in a response:

Wrong: Question: "Why did leadership fail to ...?" Response: "We didn't fail to ..."

Right: Question: "Why did leadership fail to ...?" Response: "At the time, we may not have had all the information, but ..."

Avoid jargon. Military acronyms and slang may not be easily understood by those who don't work with the military. Even communities within the military sometimes confuse terms. Spell things out, and explain concepts as you would to a civilian family member or friend.

"Anything else you'd like to add?" This is a common question that reporters typically ask at the end of any interview. The temptation is to say "no," thus ending the encounter. Instead, use the opportunity to recap the messages that support your communication objective. In a print interview, this may help the reporter tie together what was a wide-ranging discussion. In a recorded television interview, this gives you another chance to craft the perfect sound bite, encapsulating the key message. Having already discussed the issue at length with a reporter, you will be warmed up, and your second attempt may come across better than your earlier statements.

Follow through. If you promised to find additional information or arrange for another interviewee, coordinate with your public affairs team to be sure your unit delivers.

Follow-up with reporters to provide additional information if needed.
Army photo by
Specialist Matthew Sissel
Guide Quicklinks:   Top  |  Table of Contents  |  Next Chapter: Chapter 4