The day is September 28, 1960, and depending on how you tuned in, Richard Nixon just won a historic debate against John F. Kennedy. Most historical sources name JFK as the winner of that debate in September – but had it not been for the onset of broadcast television in politics, Nixon may well have been listed as the winner. According to TIME magazine, those surveyed after the debate fell into two remarkably disparate camps: those who had heard the debate over radio broadcast and believed Nixon had won handily, and those who had watched the debate on live television and thought that JFK had snatched a victory.
This particular event was a turning point for politicians and the media. Prior to that day, coverage for political events were confined to radio broadcasts. The onset of television coverage allowed the American people to see the politicians they had previously only heard – and the televised Nixon, who was still pale and recovering from a recent hospitalization, appeared frail against the younger and more vital-looking JFK.
From a standpoint of logical debate, Nixon may have been the winner of the night – but under the harsh gaze of a camera, he was left disadvantaged. When broadcasted across radio waves, a candidate’s points are boiled down to the bare arguments and policies. Television, in contrast, pushes the viewers to make additional judgements based on a candidate’s body language, wardrobe, and expression.
If Nixon’s hardship with television teaches aspiring politicians anything, it is that candidates should be prepared to face the media in all of its forms. Readying for an interview requires considerable thought and dedicated preparation time. Here few steps a candidate should complete before a broadcast interview.
Set the interview context.
Where will the interview take place? How long will it be expected to continue for? Which topics will you be discussing?
All of these questions need to be answered in detail before a candidate tapes on a mic. An interview at a campaign office has a different context and requires different in-office preparation than an interview recorded at a studio. A candidate who walks in without proper knowledge of what the interview will be focused on risks appearing confused, disorganized, or even uninformed on-camera.
Walk in prepared! Set expectations well before the interview date, and arrange accordingly.
Do your research.
“Winging it” may have been a useful strategy during college finals, but it should never be included in a candidate’s toolbox. The last thing aspiring political figures want is to appear out-of-touch with current political events – or worse, with their own policies.
Make sure to review national and local current events as well as your held campaign policies and the opposition’s arguments against them. Have snappy quotes and statistics in hand to support your position, and consider running a few recorded practice interviews. This will not only help you prepare, but it will also help you find body language or tics that translate poorly on screen.
Prepare your staff.
Most reporters won’t be satisfied with simply talking to a candidate – to get a full picture, they may wander around the office in search of a talkative campaign aide. Remember, everything is on the record unless a specific agreement is made to prohibit recorded comment – so talk to your staff! Warn them of the reporter’s visit well in advance, and then again on the day of the interview. Circulate a memo with official talking points to avoid confusion, and consider appointing a media-savvy staffer to act as a guide for the reporter.
Finally, remember to clean up the campaign office before the visit! No candidate wants to be known as the politician who can’t keep their own house in order.
Stay clear, concise, and on-message.
Speakers will do nearly anything to avoid awkward silences – and reporters know it! In fact, many use long pauses as a means to encourage the interviewee to talk more. Left unchecked, a nervous interviewee might break off onto a rambling tangent, and drop their well-thought-out talking points.
Stay concise and directed! Answer questions, but remember not to wander off onto conversational paths that will land you in hot political water later. Prepare clear talking points, and stick to them!
Building positive rapport with the media is a must for all candidates – so prepare for interviews accordingly! Without proper care, eager candidates may well end find themselves in Nixon’s position, and lose their logical edges under a camera’s superficial gaze.