Do you want to influence the story? Then you need to talk to reporters.
All of us get media requests where we are unprepared. There is only one solution; don’t panic.
Develop four or five major points to convey. They are known as your “overriding communication objectives.”
Success With the Media
I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) because I believe that organizations need to look inward to get better media results. I use contents from the book for this article.
Some believe that we should not talk to reporters. I maintain that not talking leaves you without influence; you are committing yourself to a negative story. The trick is to know how to talk to the media.
This is the third in a series of articles on, “The Art of the Interview.”
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, radio and television; over fifty national and regional awards. Post-Master’s certificate-Johns Hopkins University.
“O My Gawd” Interviews
All of us get media requests where we are unprepared. There is only one solution; don’t panic. Remember that the majority of negative media inquiries come from exaggerating employees or other “knowledgeable” sources. Their charges are usually much worse than the situation actually is. Your goal is to get through the day as honestly and ethically as you can while understanding that you do not have a complete understanding of the issues at hand. “Buying yourself a day” is a common tactic. You want to get through the day without making the situation worse.
After you have been through unexpected interviews twenty or thirty times, you begin to take them in stride. While not being complacent, you understand that the story, upon investigation, is uniformly not as bad as it first appeared. It will still result in a negative report or article, but you know how to take a hit. Sometimes, the worst thing you can do under these circumstances is to overreact to the story.
Be professional in your attitude. Get as much detail from the reporter as possible. Find out the deadline. Contact your executives immediately (yes, we all know they are busy) and get them working on the case. Answer the who-what-when-where questions to the best of your ability.
Questions that come in by noon and are answered by early afternoon have a greater chance of being dismissed by the media, but please note, allegations that take all day to assess or disprove may be used. The space or airtime has already been assigned. They have, in their view, almost no choice but to use it.
You Are Not Obligated To Do Their Job
You are only obligated to answer the questions asked. You are not obligated to do the job of the reporter. You will rarely encounter reporters who are intricately knowledgeable of your operations. The vast majority of reporters are “general assignment,” which means that one day they are handling a fire, the next day a traffic accident, and the following day, your organization. Most reporters, even those who have some knowledge of your business, will not know enough about the details to ask specific questions. They are essentially on fishing expeditions; they are not sure of their questions.
Don’t be surprised when radio and television reporters bring in a copy of the newspaper containing the article generating widespread interest. That article (and the biases contained within it) is often the sole research used by many non-print reporters. This situation will prompt “big picture” questions. Reporters will look for themes that the average citizen will respond and relate to. Knowing this, you need to be prepared with answers that respond to the “big picture.”
Let’s say that a report has been issued on the status of widgets and their relationship to food safety. The 250-page report is extremely technical in nature, which means that the average reporter will not read the entire report or understand it. The report attacks your organization either directly or through inference. You represent the National Association of Widgets. Hopefully you have read the report and talked to your technical experts. If not, read the executive summary and get a technical expert to explain the rest. Do not talk to the media without the best possible understanding of the situation or results of the research. Get in touch with your senior executives; know your organization’s position.
The unprepared reporter, however, is most likely going to focus on “big picture” questions. They want to know if your widgets are having a detrimental effect on food and public safety.
Remember, for unprepared interviews you simply want to get through the day without making the situation worse. Develop four or five major points to convey. They are known as your “overriding communication objectives.” Most questions should be answered with elements of these objectives.
You’re not obligated to answer every vague and offbeat question directly. You’re not obligated to help reporters form their questions. It’s perfectly justifiable to answer “big picture” questions with prepared answers.
You can take control over any interview by having new facts and figures or unique research at hand. If it’s truly timely and unique, lead with this information. Sometimes it’s interesting to the point where the person conducting the interview lets you go where you want to go. This tactic works only within the context of the situation, and only you can decide if it’s worth using.
Beyond your opening statement, stick to your script. Keep it honest and simple. Keep your overriding communication objectives in mind, and you will do just fine.
Here are some examples of communication objectives based on the example above:
- We put customer safety first.
- We are very proud of our product. It has an excellent track record.
- Independent, outside evaluations give our product very high marks.
- The International Association of Widgets reviewed our product. We exceed their standards.
- If we have any indication that our product does not meet standards, then we will recall it immediately.
- Nothing is more important to us than the loyalty of our customers or the safety of the public.
- We invite the public to contact us at our website, via a toll-free number, or through social media. We will respond to all inquiries as quickly as possible.
Now, if you do not put customer safety first, or the International Association of Widgets has not reviewed your product, then don’t say it. Just in case you believe that you can get away with saying it, remember those disgruntled employees? You think you’re in trouble now? Wait until they are done with you. Honesty will always be your best policy. Having a script of prepared answers to help you “stay on message” is of immense help, especially if you are doing multiple interviews.
Please remember, however, that answering all inquiries solely with “canned” responses on subsequent days is a sure-fire method of proving to the media and the public that you are less than honest. Sincere questions deserve appropriate answers. There is nothing wrong with taking questions you cannot answer and providing responses later in the day or the following day. It’s perfectly fine to admit a lack of knowledge and a need to research the situation, especially on the first day.
Beyond “O My Gawd” Interviews
Future articles will focus on basic characteristics of day-to-day interactions. While everything in this chapter from “Success With the Media” is interchangeable, it seems simpler to address prepared interviews separately. For day-to-day interviews, you have a good understanding of the characteristics of your organization. You are aware of your policies, research operations, legal issues and the preferences of leadership. You also have a decent awareness of your detractors and the reasons behind their concerns. You are knowledgeable of your lines of communication. Media inquiries are expected and understood. In this scenario, little takes you by surprise.
For more information on good organizational and media relations, see “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X. Your reviews are appreciated.
See my website at http://leonardsipes.com.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.