In the age of social media and fake news, the stakes have never been higher for C-suite executives when sitting down for an interview with a member of the press. If navigated successfully, such conversations and their ultimate output have the potential to raise visibility for under-the-radar CEOs, elevate corporate brands in the eyes of corporate clients and even lift company stock prices — if investors like what they hear.

However, that very same broadcast segment or newsroom meeting also has the potential to deliver an equally damaging laundry list of dire consequences. The sheer volume of platforms where news is now consumed and disseminated, and the speed by which this information travels, means that the media interview or even the resulting coverage can frequently take on a life of its own.

For communications professionals, the ability to limit or adjust undesirable messages that result from a media interview is virtually non-existent in today’s ultra-competitive, unforgiving media landscape. As such, it’s more important than ever to thoroughly prepare corporate spokespeople for media engagements and equip them with the necessary tools to ace such press interactions or, at the very least, “do no harm” when speaking with journalists, most of whom have likely studied your company’s every public disclosure.

At the onset of a potentially weak second-quarter earnings season, here are some best practices for preparing executives for the media interviews to come:

  • Set the scene — Clearly outline both parties’ intended goals to your spokesperson. A reporter is neither friend nor foe, but the story he or she is after may diverge greatly from the one you wish to tell, no matter how eloquently it is delivered. Understanding the ground that will be covered can go a long way toward determining whether to engage on such topics or to bring alternative content to the table. (And if you diverge, you better bring it!)
  • Come with an agenda — but expect the unexpected – The interview is your executive’s best chance to tell his or her story in their own words. There’s no better argument for taking the meeting in the first place. Encourage your spokesperson to stick to what they know and are qualified to speak to, regardless of what’s thrown at them. Reporters are curious; they are paid to be. Go down a rabbit hole and they will follow — with questions.
  • Educate on the ground rules — Ensuring that a spokesperson understands whether or not they will be quoted on their potential remarks is everything. Individual company policies will vary, but regardless of your preference for an on-the-record, on-background or an off-the-record (often a deal breaker for reporters) conversation, if you don’t want to see it in print, don’t say it!
  • Showcase what’s important — Reporters want to talk to your executive, but they also want to talk to your competitor’s spokesperson, and so on. Train your executives to highlight their key messages. If there’s one thought I leave you with, it’s this… — use such phrases.
  • Redirect when needed — No matter how hard you prep, journalists will lob at least one question at your executive, seemingly out of left field. This is often done intentionally, but occasionally unintentionally. Coach your executives to acknowledge such hardballs and bridge back to talking points. If you have the content, reporters may take the bait.

The changing nature of how we digest news means the impact of the already tough media interview and its resulting coverage can spread like wildfire across numerous channels. By taking the above steps, communications professionals can ensure their executives are well prepared and ready to rise to the challenge.

Brett Philbin is senior vice president in Edelman’s Financial Communications & Capital Markets practice and chairman of Edelman’s Global Financial Media Center of Excellence.