The enduring bromide for trial lawyers is that you must try your case in the courtroom, not in the court of public opinion fueled by information you give the media. Still, with some limitations, you can use the media to help make your case before trial. (Cal. R. Prof. Cond. 5120.) But you've got to know how.
PREPARING FOR THE INTERVIEW
Prepare for your interview by learning as much as you can about the reporter who will be questioning you-by reading published articles, watching video clips, and discussing the reporter's work with people who know about it. Become familiar with the type of publication or radio or TV show in which you will be included and its general reputation. Also find out about the interview format-for example, whether you have any control over what questions will be asked. If not, ask to preview the questions.
After that, determine your goal for the interview and what message you want to convey. If you do not know the questions in advance, make a list of those you're likely to be asked-both the difficult and easy ones. Next, prepare brief, written responses. Emphasize one or two pivotal points that convey your main message. Edit your responses and ask another attorney familiar with your case to give you constructive criticism.
GIVING THE INTERVIEW
Heeding the following tips can mean the difference between an effective and persuasive interview and a nerve-racked unraveling of your case.
Speak in sound bites. To grab attention quickly, answer questions with a brief conclusion first. Then back up your conclusion with facts if time allows.
Be brief. Long-winded answers are counterproductive. The typical TV segment for a major story is two or three minutes-and a printed quote is a sentence or two. That's all the time or space you'll have to make your point.
Stick to your message. Reporters' questions are often leading and get into subject matter you don't want to discuss. In such cases, segue into a related point that you want to cover.
Avoid jargon. Short and simple words are best. Your job is to persuasively communicate a point.
Don't interrupt. Do not begin your answer until the reporter is finished asking the question.
Be likeable. Smile and be polite. Keep your cool. You may be asked questions designed to provoke you, but don't take the bait.
Stay "on the record." As a general rule, your interview should not be "off the record." Information you give might come from another person, but it will appear that it came from you, and it could be damaging to your case if it is erroneous or miscasts your client.
WORKING WITH REPORTERS
Promptly return all phone calls from the media. Find out what the reporter wants. Even if you decide to decline an interview, you can often give a reporter information to help with the current story or a follow-up one. You will be remembered positively because you called back promptly, were knowledgeable, and gave valuable information.
If a reporter wants to interview you over the phone, try to buy some time to prepare. Ask the reporter if the deadline allows you to call back in 30 minutes or so. Then use that time to prepare notes sketching out answers to questions the reporter is likely to ask.
If you don't know the answer to a reporter's question, just say so and indicate you will get back to him or her shortly. Then be sure to do so.
On television, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression, so it's especially important to get it right the first time.
Know that you will be judged by your appearance. Dress appropriately. Sit erect and slightly forward in your chair. Try to be relaxed and comfortable.
Pretend that you are not being interviewed but simply talking to a friend. Be yourself. Don't shout into the microphone or look at the camera; just concentrate on the person asking you the question. Smile when appropriate. Body language is also important. Gesture naturally. Avoid wringing your hands, tapping a finger or foot, swaying or shifting your body, or fussing with your hair or glasses.
Finally, maintain your interview posture and demeanor from the moment you are lit by the bright lights until the camera is off-and add a few extra seconds to be sure you are not caught awkwardly while still on the air.
Michael Begovich is a deputy public defender in San Diego.