Five Key Things to Prep Your Subject Matter Expert

Article 6 min
Successful interviews start with great preparation. Take a thousand-foot view of everything you may need to properly prepare your subject matter expert (SME).

Your work with your SME begins long before they step in front of the media. You need to build a relationship with your experts, establishing trust so they will come to you when approached by the media before they give an interview. Whether your SME has the makings of a perfect spokesperson or dreads being interviewed, your job is to help your SME understand the importance of what they are about to do. Review these materials and activities as part of your preparation process.

1. Know How Much Prep Is Necessary

The extent of media training needed by a subject matter expert is dependent upon a few things—your relationship with your SMEs, your relationship with the media, the SME’s level of experience and confidence in dealing with news media, the SME’s attitude toward the media and the nature of the story. Within the many scenarios are the questions we want (i.e., an award story), the questions we don't want (i.e., a crisis) and what we expect (i.e., a policy change).

An Airman who won The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing for a sports feature in the local newspapers won’t need the same extent of media training as the staff judge advocate (SJA) will before telling reporters how 50 homeless families go about filing a claim against the Air Force after its plane crashed in the nearby pine barrens and burnt their homes to the ground. A simple media query could be good or bad, depending on the reporter's intent and how the line of questioning develops.

The Airman is in for a low-demand interview about a pleasant experience and is more than happy to talk about it because this type of story is far more apt to draw positive attention than negative. On the other hand, the SJA interview experience will be considerably more demanding. A crisis situation is never a pleasant topic. Also, being already exhausted from working around the clock since the crash, the SJA will most likely be pressed by multiple media reporters to give details outside their lane of expertise—from pilot training and aircraft maintenance standards to aircraft accident investigations.

As with any event, the better prepared the spokesperson is, the better the interview results will be. What you do before you or the SME meet the media is as important as what you do when you meet them. Often the preparatory activities determine the success or failure of your media interview. By being prepared, you or the person you are coaching are more confident and comfortable and better able to get your message across to those who count the most—the audience.

2. Develop a Mission Plan

You want to make sure your SME understands that they are speaking for the organization or the Department of Defense—not just themselves. A mission plan will help you and your SME get on the same page prior to stepping in front of the media. Follow this interview mission plan template to write out your communication goals, message, background information and any issues or questions that might come up during the interview. A media scan specific to the reporter conducting the interview will help your SME prepare for the flow of the interview. Pulling a couple of stories to determine reporter sentiment as well as a peek at their Twitter should provide some important insight. Remember, solid interviews are not done in a question-and-answer fashion; they are a conversation. Have your SME look for opportunities to provide context to the reporter. Remember that if they use anecdotes or real-world examples, the reporter will likely ask the PA for additional details, which is necessary for relationship building.

You will also want to develop a media interaction plan to set you and your SME up for a successful interview, as well as a debrief and review after building interview skills for the future.

3. Brief Your SME

Help your SME recognize that the media’s role isn’t to attack but to gather information for the public. Going into the interview with a positive attitude and factual information will generate credibility and create a good working relationship with the media. An interview done right reflects in the story and increases the likelihood that command messages will be left in the soundbites used. Ideally, you have worked to build strong media relations and have confidence in your media partners.

Your SME should understand the rules of attribution. In other words, their comments may:

  • be attributed to a "military official"
  • receive a general attribution such as "sources said"
  • not attributed at all, such as "it was learned today"
  • on background, where the information cannot be attributed to the giver, such as "I heard from a reliable source."

The interview could also be entirely off the record and held in complete confidence. Keep in mind the reporter is under no obligation to honor anything you say, which makes interviews "on background" or "off the record" risky and not recommended unless there is a strong, professional relationship with the reporter or the public affairs representative. To be safe, your SME should conduct all interviews as if every word is on the record. It's important that your SME recognizes that they cannot switch hats and speak "only for themselves." This extends to social media—if your SME says it on a public site, it can and will be attributed to them.

The SME should be clear on any embargos in place for publication, e.g., did the reporter agree to hold this story until a certain date, pending the release of something else or after a certain date.

In addition, you should:

  • Prepare a briefing card for your SME
  • Ensure your SME understands how to conduct a successful media interview
  • Coordinate with higher headquarters (HHQ) when the topic or story subject matter necessitates it. When working with trade publications or national-level media, HHQ is a valuable historical resource.

4. Reinforce Command Messages

Given that you can’t directly control what answers a reporter will use in the finished story, it is essential that each answer is accurate within the frame of releasable information. This means you need to develop some quality messages and ensure your SME understands how to articulate those messages. Here's how:

  • Imagine the headline you want on the story, and then write that headline down. Every message you build should support that headline.
  • Make sure your messages are short, memorable and relevant to the interview topic, but don't exclude the need to provide context.
  • Review your key messages. Change the message if it isn’t truthful, meaningful and to the point.
  • Add messages to your answers.

Try to get at least one message in each response. Practice your "ABCs" with your SME. Answer the question (or not answer the question if appropriate), bridge to a command message and state the command message.


“Last year alone, as part of an ongoing commitment to take care of our people, we reduced the backlog on training requirements by 11 percent and worked with Congress to increase pay by four percent.

Make sure both the SME and the PA are comfortable with the command message being relayed naturally and conversationally as well as being savvy enough to know when to just answer the question and stop. If the SME sounds like a robot reading a prompt, the reporter will see through that. It is better to weave the command messages into the conversation. It should always come back to intent, what you are trying to accomplish with this interview and how this is advancing your command messaging.

5. Practice Interview Techniques

Interview techniques such as hooking, bridging and flagging help your SME draw extra emphasis on key points while talking to the reporter.

Hooking takes advantage of opportunities before and during the interview to help focus the reporter on what you want to talk about. Examples of hooks include, “And that’s just one possibility...” or “We did something no other organization has ever done.” Use hooks to get the reporter to follow your lead.

Bridging is a smooth transition from a question to a message. An example of a bridge includes, “...good point, but the real issue is...” A bridge is a great way to avoid answering a question, but it need not always be used in that context.

Flagging is a way to underscore what's important, verbally and/or nonverbally. Use voice inflection, appropriate hand gestures, eye contact or body language to emphasize a point.

Practice will increase confidence and result in better messaging. A few mock interviews will give the interviewee a chance to recognize opportunities to bridge, when to say, “I don’t know,” when to refer the reporter to PA for clarity on a question and so forth. Ultimately, the reporter is looking for accurate information, so it's important to let the SME practice correcting the record if they realize they misspoke during the interview.

Use these tips as part of your media interview prep, and don't forget to review verbal and non-verbal skills.