Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Landing an Interview 101

I’m no expert, but with the long tail of the Internet making my TV interviews continue to be some of the most popular items I’ve written, I get sporadic but not infrequent requests for advice on how to contact the people I’ve interviewed. If the idea is to reach out as a fan or with some business proposition, I tell the inquirer to look for the public email or snail mail on the network website. It’s the lazy answer, but then it’s lazy to ask me the question.

But some are simply newbie writers or podcasters asking for advice on how to get started interviewing people, and I can understand the desire for a little hand-holding when it can first seem like a mysterious and rejection-prone process.

I’ll admit to a little hesitance to answer those kinds of questions because we’ve all seen the underbelly of the Internet, including fans whose grasp on reality is shaky, and I don’t want to help potential stalkers or even potential annoyers. It's always seemed to me that someone likely to be granted an interview is also someone likely to be able to figure out how to request an interview. But it also seems there are writers and podcasters just starting out with interviews who need some encouragement to get over their fear of the unknown and give it a shot, and I understand that feeling.

I’ll write this about TV specifically, since those are the blog-related interviews I’ve done, but if you’re clever I’m sure you can see how it relates to movies or books or music or even non-entertainment subjects, though some of those people will be much easier to reach.

Before you start

If you’re aiming for the A-list stars and feel the need to read this, you’re probably dreaming (though, who knows?). However, there are many people out there – actors, writers, directors, what have you – with a creative product to sell who might be willing to sell it to your readers or listeners.

Those readers or listeners are the first step, by the way. Don’t expect people with much of a public profile to grant an interview to a publication with no public profile, unless you have a personal connection or they’re very desperate or very kind. That doesn’t mean you have to write for The New York Times, obviously, or I’d never land an interview. But you need to write for a website that has a readership beyond your friends and family. Unless you have a really, really big family.

So first step, if that’s not you, would be to sign up with a website that has something of a profile and build your writing portfolio there. Done? OK then.

Finding contact information

First, the tough love for those who have asked or think about asking: I will never pass on contact information. It would be unethical, and I find it rude to be asked. I won’t pass your interview request on, either, and it probably wouldn't help you if I did. However, if you have personal contacts who might get you close to your interviewee, see if you can make that work. I am not your personal contact unless I’ve given you a Christmas present in the last two years. And even then, you’d better be planning to give me a big one next year.

With Google and the proliferation of blogs and MySpace pages and whatnot among creative folks, you might be able to contact your prospective interviewee directly. Most likely, especially if they’re higher up the food the chain, that’s not going to work.

My interviews have usually been arranged through network publicists or, in the case of the Banff World Television Festival interviews*, their PR people. Some network media sites have open access, some require you to register and be approved in order to enter. “Media” they'll accept include websites like Blogcritics, so as long as you write or podcast or whatever for a platform that has some credibility, you likely won’t have a problem.

If you're writing for a reasonably big site, they might already have the contacts. And no, I'm not going to link to the network media sites. That'll be my sword-in-the-stone test: If you have a problem even finding that, you probably need to hone your research skills before considering doing an interview.

Making the ask

The PR person is a gatekeeper. Part of their responsibility is to protect the image of the show and the people involved in it. Make it easy for them to decide your request is worthy of consideration.

When you’re asking for the interview, from a PR person or directly to the interviewee, remember: No one’s doing you a favour. Your fervent desire for the interview will have nothing to do with their decision about whether to grant it. Sell your request on what it means for them, not how much it will mean to you. Presumably you can offer a reasonably professional, insightful look at their show that will reach enough people to justify the time involved for the interviewee (no, I wouldn’t suggest you use that line with them, but your pitch, platform and portfolio should all help sell that idea for you).

To get into the nitty gritty, when I make my interview request, I send a brief e-mail saying who I want to talk to and about what, briefly give my credentials – who I write for and what I've written in the past – and then a one sentence introduction to what Blogcritics is, how many visitors it gets, maybe name one of the awards it’s received, and I add the fact that it’s a Google News and Yahoo News source. It’s not the New York Times, but I want to make it clear that neither is it Unified Theory of Nothing Much.

It’s a minor point, but I also use a professional e-mail address (i.e. not Gmail or hotmail).

You might want to do the pitch by phone. I hate asking for pretty much anything, including interviews, so making the pitch via e-mail minimizes my discomfort. More importantly, it also lets me include links to 2-3 relevant articles in my portfolio, which I think are crucial given I write for a site they likely haven’t heard of.

You might face rejection. Rejection might take the form of not hearing back. If you’re determined, the smart thing to do might be a quick and polite follow up phone call to the PR person (I wouldn’t, but that’s me). After that, I'd say move on. Maybe build your interview portfolio with more willing subjects and try again later armed with evidence that you’re a good risk.

Facing the interview

When you land the interview, the same is true: No one’s doing you a favour. If they’ve agreed to an interview, it’s for publicity for their product. No need to pledge your firstborn child. You might be nervous; I always am. They might be nervous. Imagine they ARE nervous and it will probably make you less nervous to think of it as your job to make them less nervous. Does that sentence make you nervous?

These are very busy people, so don’t be surprised by postponements and cancellations and sometimes outright stand-ups. I actually asked Bill Lawrence’s assistant (charmingly tongue-in-cheek, I hope) if I was on Punk’d after experiencing all of the above at least in triplicate. Don’t follow my lead on that. Smiling and nodding and rescheduling is usually the way to go. That was an unusually painful get, so I was willing (almost hoping) to lose the interview by that point, and figured he would be amused rather than offended after all the smiling and nodding I’d done. It worked.

Doing the interview

Well, no, this is where I leave you to your own devices. There are lots of resources out there on how to conduct an interview -- believe me, you can do a lot better than me on that score.


Fire away. Just don’t ask me for contact information.

* Getting accredited to cover an event is usually a matter of contacting the event PR person, filling out forms and getting your editor/website publisher/etc. if applicable to sign them. Whether you’re successful or not likely will depend on the event and its criteria, and, again, the credibility of the place you publish and your past work.