Do you want to influence the story? Then you need to talk to reporters.
We often “choose” the media we obtain. If we choose to be unnecessarily combative and negative, we will get negative news in return.
Management and others need a common understanding as to what constitutes news.
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 second 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.
Perceptions of media fairness can hamper our ability to respond. Our executives will rant and rave during tough times when they should be focusing on a response. These discussions can be a major distraction. Management needs a common understanding as to what constitutes news.
Some believe that news decisions are made on the basis of what will bring a profit to the newspaper or television station. “News organizations are profit-making entities,” they assert. “They do what is in their economic best interest regardless of the story.” Reporters believe that accusations of “selling” their work solely or partially as a moneymaking enterprise is insulting in the extreme. The reporters I know find the charge revolting.
As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I have found that the majority of reporters are ethical people who do their jobs based on the evidence at hand.
Newsworthy articles and reports are like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography; you know it when you see it. The adage of “man bites dog” rather than “dog bites man” constitutes a common sense definition of “news.”
The normal workings of government or business are not news. The unusual or negative typically is. Regardless of the profit-making motives of news management, news is news. Most of what graces the front page of the newspaper or acts as the big story on the evening news fit into the category of unusual or negative. A government’s new program to ensure that drug treatment is available to criminal offenders is news in the beginning. A problem reaching that lofty goal is even bigger news.
The big fire is going to make the front page and will headline the evening news. To many in the industry, news is news, regardless of the economics involved. Reporters will insist that they are merely reporting facts; let the chips fall where they may.
What the Public Wants
There is often another twist to this discussion. The news is often negative because that’s often what the public wants. There was a story about a young woman found dead a mile from my home. It seemed that everyone in my neighborhood followed the story carefully. Individuals may not say that they prefer negative news, but they infer as much by stating in surveys that they want information on crime, accidents, fires, or bungling on the part of government or corporations. They will say that they want information that is interesting or affects their daily lives. Well, most of what affects our lives is negative. Positive news may be nice, but in the minds of many consumers, it’s not “news you can use.”
Every newspaper that devotes itself to soft community news is inevitably small and local. As much as some commentators lament the unceasing coverage of crime, accidents, fires, and the usual investigative reports, the public desires this information. Therefore, these types of events are featured as the “big story” on the eleven o’clock news.
We Contribute to Negative News
I spoke to a retired editor of the Washington Post over lunch long after a series of negative reports about the National Zoo. The coverage at the time seemed endless. What prompted such a series of hard-hitting articles about a zoo?
There were legitimate questions about operations and the welfare of animals, and there were insiders who were willing to produce documentation and context. However, the real reason for the continued coverage was that zoo officials were insultingly uncooperative with regard to answering questions. Their responses were hostile and stonewalling in nature. After a series of articles that could only be described as scandalous, zoo officials raised a white flag and began to provide answers. The series of negative reports came to an end.
Are You The National Zoo?
We know that the most negative media inquiries will come from employees or those with opposing agendas. These individuals will often pass on internal memos (typically written in the usual imprecise bureaucratic style) that leave virtually anything open to interpretation. Here is an important point to remember: all internal correspondence should be written with the media in mind.
Giving information to reporters provides a great deal of power to those on mid to lower rungs of an organization. To many employees, this is the only way they will be able to influence organizational or public policy. They believe that the media forces change or ensure that things will be done differently. Often they are correct.
The news is negative because of the nature of reporting and informing by employees and others, and because of our overprotective responses. By the time the Smoke Blowers are done with the public affairs professional, their instructions are often guaranteed to produce a dysfunctional response and a guaranteed confrontation.
Our replies are sometimes so vague and bureaucratic as to be practically meaningless, and some reporters enjoy “punishing” the organization for perceived dysfunction. Some technical or legal specialists advocate fuzzy, formless answers. Many spokespeople encounter individuals who embrace being vague and obscure on a regular basis. They will claim that they are simply trying to be “accurate.” They are indifferent to the fact that the interaction produced hostility or distrust on the part of the reporter or editors. They simply don’t care; it’s not their butts on the line.
Snatching Defeat from the Hands of Victory
I dealt with a reporter who is a hard-charging individual known for doing her homework and asking very tough questions. We were at the final stages of approximately twenty telephone conversations taking place over the course of two months. She had an inside source making exaggerated accusations about the previously mentioned release of a criminal from prison and murdered a child. I felt convinced that I had spent enough time with the reporter to convince her that the inside source had exaggerated his story. Virtually all insiders overplay their hands when talking to the media.
I was convinced that much of her original premise had been discredited. She had final follow-up questions for some previously interviewed technical experts who now expressed concern about further conversations, demanding that she place her questions in writing. They further asserted that the questions had to be such that they could respond to them in one day. They were tired of the process. The reporter expressed surprise over the indignity of submitting questions in writing. She wanted to talk directly to the experts. She immediately became suspicious of the request.
“Okay Leonard, what the hell is going on? After meaningful discussions, your guys suddenly want to play hardball?” she said.
It was a dumb move on our part. My inability to convince bureaucrats of the dangerousness of their stance proved costly. She now wondered why we suddenly had become so protective. What should have been one report now had the potential to become two or three. She was also in communication with a national network representative expressing interest in doing the story. The double indignity was the fact that we were mostly (but not completely) innocent of the insider’s claims, but our lack of a personal response raised suspicions that we had something to hide. We had taken a partial victory and discarded it.
It’s difficult enough that the news (under the best of circumstances) is going to focus on negative events. It’s hard enough to deal with the never-ending flow of overly aggressive reporters, but many spokespeople feel that the hardest part of the job is dealing with bureaucrats inside the organization. We often “choose” the media we obtain. If we choose to be unnecessarily combative and negative, we will get negative news in return.
Strategies for Dealing with Negative News Inquiries
So, now you are prepared. You understand the interview as an art. You know why news is often negative. You know how to take a hit. You have your lines of communication in place. You’ve done your research. You understand that your mission is to win the war, not the battle. You know how to deal with the Smoke Blowers. You understand that you control your own destiny. So what do you do when the negative media inquiry comes?
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 [email protected].