Hugging a cactus: here's how to make your next media interview a less prickly experience.

Author:Rose, Gene

For some public officials, submitting to a media interview is akin to shaking hands with a cactus. For even the thickest-skinned, interacting with the spiny plants causes irritation and leaves marks, making the thought of another encounter uninviting and something to avoid.

The excuses to stay away from the media are often the same: All it can do is get me into trouble: I'm always misquoted: or They'll just print or air whatever they want to anyway.

Those with sterling media reputations know, however, that even though an encounter with the media can be thorny, there's a payoff for learning how to do it effectively. It can be a tremendous opportunity to get your message out, help shape public opinion and create public discourse on even the most complex issues--an important part of how representative democracy works, many would say. Here's a three-step crash course on how to successfully embrace a cactus without getting stung.

1 Study it.

Just as there are an estimated 2,000 types of cacti in the world, media take on several different shapes and forms. Understanding how the various kinds operate, how their organizations are structured, and how they view their purpose is critical to being successful. Here are important areas of discovery.

* Hierarchy. The demands and needs of the media at various levels relate to their audience. Local media thrive on information that's important to the communities they serve. The statewide press looks for compelling narratives that tell a larger story and will generate conversation and debate about specific issues. This approach is magnified many times over at the national level. Knowing a media outlet's audience is an important consideration in framing responses to questions.

* Medium. Deadline requirements have blurred since most organizations now have an online presence where stories usually break instead of in the morning newspaper or the nightly newscast. One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the need to respond to an interview request in a timely manner. Don't wait until the end of the day. It lowers the chances of your views appearing in the story and gives others the opportunity to steal the headline.

* Ideology. The number of full-time newspaper reporters has dropped 35 percent since 2003, according to the Pew Research Journalism Project. Political activists and partisan bloggers are rushing in to fill the void, adding fuel to the country's growing political divide. With some media outlets more...

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