Do you want to influence the story? Then you need to talk to reporters.
Conversations with the media are often in our best interest.
How you respond may depend more on the information the reporter offers to you than what you give to the reporter.
You are “artfully” selling yourself, your trustworthiness, and the organization’s reputation.
Interviews are filled with subtle nuances and inferences.
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 first of 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.
This chapter discusses strategies and issues that promote or hamper the exchange of information with reporters. We need to have a thorough examination of both, and it needs to address everyone in the media relations decision-making process.
There are two kinds of interviews: prepared and “O my gawd.” The prepared interview is self-explanatory. The “O my gawds” are much more interesting. There are common characteristics to both. Interviews are filled with subtle nuances and inferences that make all the difference in the world. The exchange of information can almost be secondary.
In one example, a reporter from a national newspaper called to ask about castrating sex offenders. I knew the reporter from a variety of prior contacts. She stated that a member of the legislature proposed that this method was a justifiable approach to the problem of sex crimes and criminals, and she wanted our reaction. I asked to go “off the record,” and she quickly agreed.
“Okay, Susan, how the hell do I respond to this one?” I asked in mocked exasperation. “I don’t know,” she laughed. “I think that it’s funnier than hell.”
We both agreed that the research indicated that the process of castrating a criminal does not remove his sex drive or his ability to commit a sex crime. She stated that “just because you chop off the caboose doesn’t mean the engine stops running.”
“That’s it,” I proclaimed. “That’s our quote!” We both enjoyed the exchange, but then I asked, “Susan, do you really want a quote from us on this?” Susan replied, “This is ridiculous. I’ll ask my editor. If we need a quote, I’ll call you back.” That was it. I never heard from her again on this subject.
What I learned from Susan is that she did not have a personal investment in the story. I was able to discuss research pertaining to castrating sex offenders on an “off the record” basis without committing my department to a rather awkward public statement.
But another reporter may have a personal investment in criminal castration and take the story very seriously. With a reporter like that, castration is nothing to joke about. He or she will want a formal statement and will expect it by the deadline. Thus, we have two reporters covering the same story with two entirely different points of view. What happens may depend more on the information the reporter offers to you than what you give to the reporter.
To be successful, we need to be aware of the subtleties. Public affairs is not harpooning whales; it’s more like fly-fishing. There is a grace inherent in the listening skills involved.
Another issue is that you are “artfully” selling yourself, your trustworthiness, and the organization’s reputation. Obviously, this approach does not apply to every media request, but it can apply to many. The most important attribute is our ability to be friendly, helpful, accurate, and reputable, thus having the capacity to influence the story.
It is that ability that makes or breaks us as public affairs professionals. There are a multitude of ethical methods to provide us with the capacity to influence the story, thus the reason for this chapter. If you approach every interview with the same energy and creativity you offered during your first date with your spouse or the first time you met your in-laws, you will do just fine (hopefully with better results than with the in-laws).
The point is that interviews are a stage, and you are the “act.” Interviews are not forums for dishonesty, but they are platforms for energy, creativity and knowledge. Shakespeare said, “All the world is a stage.” Nowhere is this truer than in media relations.
No Fear, No Hostility
I frequently see the “No Fear” corporate logo for Nike. The mantra for public relations professionals should be “No Fear.” I sometimes think that the advice offered to me about dealing with dangerous dogs applies to many reporters; they both smell fear and take it as an opportunity to attack.
The opposite approach is equally damaging. Too many of us start media conversations with subtle or overt hostility. I will suggest that if the reporter is clearly annoyed or personally invested in the story, then you have just set yourself up for a negative interview.
Some public affairs people do not return phone calls or e-mails or respond late in the day. Do you think this conveys a message of fear? The same applies to always asking for media requests to be written. You are selling yourself as much as you’re presenting a point of view. If your attitude is one of fear, apprehension, or hostility, the reporter may assume that you have something to hide or that negative accusations are correct.
In a variety of disciplines, I have advised people to trust their instincts. Well, I’m not quite sure that advice applies to everyone making media decisions. Although successful public affairs professionals constantly rely on their instincts, many individuals within the organization seem to go haywire when confronted by the media. To some, their instinct is to run or hide. Obviously, this leads to difficulties.
Each interview should be approached in a genuinely friendly and civil manner. Whether you know the person or not, common courtesy applies. Use the journalist’s name. If you know his or her nickname or any appropriate personal information, use it! However, I am not asking you to fake it. I am not suggesting that the interchange be insincere. If you feel uncomfortable with this approach, then don’t do it. I was raised with the idea that it was mannerly to engage others in conversation and that it was perfectly acceptable to inquire about their lives. I do not want to suggest that courtesy is solely a tactic. It’s preferable to be appropriately friendly, and it’s a wonderful icebreaker.
Comment on the journalist’s last report or article. Reporters like to talk about prior work and the challenges involved. Humor, preferably clean, can be useful. When you are selling yourself, you need to find a style that you are comfortable with that expresses your individuality, sincerity, and helpfulness.
The world is filled with well-dressed people with big smiles and friendly handshakes who seem to personify insincerity. What people are looking for is the “real thing.” Be that person. Express genuine sincerity and do it in your own style.
There is a reporter (now an editor) for a major newspaper who is well known within his organization for not wearing socks. The reporter could call with the most damaging of inquiries, and my first question would be, “Bob, are you wearing socks today?”
Bob’s usual response would be, “Sipes, it’s none of your damned business if I’m wearing socks.” I would then swear that his co-workers told me not to answer any questions if he was not wearing socks. I stated that I was in complete solidarity with his fellow employees and their objections to the unpleasant habit. At this point, he would threaten to put the socks in an unpleasant place, and the interview would commence. Obviously, the point has nothing to do with whether Bob was wearing socks. Rather, it has everything to do with establishing a personal (if not bizarre) bond at the beginning of the interview. Yes, you can only do this if you have a prior relationship. Don’t attempt it if you are uncomfortable or unsure.
If the reporter is from out of town, I’m going to ask her about some characteristic of her hometown. It could be the weather, sports, or anything else germane to local conditions. The topic doesn’t matter. I have had five-minute conversations with complete strangers about our families and children. I am not disingenuous. I would like to think that I’m just trying to be mannerly.
Starting off each conversation with something other than annoyance is important. If the reporter does not smell fear at the beginning of the interview, then you are more likely to have a successful exchange of views.
Quite frankly, some reporters look forward to a combative exchange. Many of us seem more than happy to play into their hands. Nothing makes it easier for the television station or newspaper to slam you. I have been in newsrooms when a reporter puts down the phone and announces to his editor and those around him that the spokesperson is “being a jerk.” Combative spokespeople play into the hands of those who feel that we are nothing more than unprincipled flacks.
Like the Smoke Blowers described earlier in this book, the entire newsroom then gathers in a large circle and proceeds to blow smoke up each other’s derrieres until all are convinced that the spokesperson and the associated organization cannot be trusted. All the negatives inferred are now strengthened. Everything your detractors are saying gains greater importance. The editors and reporters are now convinced that you are trying to hide something.
Sometimes reporters will purposely try to provoke you. I know of journalists who start off some conversations as if I have kicked their family dog.
She begins with, “God, Leonard, your people have really screwed things up this time.” She says it with the gusto of a plane approaching the airport. “Well, Kate, you obviously intend on writing an article without hearing our side of the story,” I say, thus challenging her journalistic integrity.
At this point, Kate advises that she has a source providing negative news. So the dance begins. I remind her that I have served her long and well and that I deserve better than an attack conversation. I state that she needs to hear our side before coming to any conclusions. Kate then settles down and starts listing issues that need response, and I begin my work. Before we end the conversation, however, I obtain a pledge that she will wait for my response before she makes conclusions. She always agrees, and then I set off to “make the day” of my superiors.
For some spokespersons, a conversation that starts off with nasty accusations creates a tailspin from which they cannot recover. The spokesperson goes to his or her boss and those standing nearby announcing that the reporter is being a jerk and has information that the organization is doing something “terrible.”
Every Smoke Blower in the area now performs their ritual dance. “The media are scum,” they all chant in unison. Candles are lit to ward off evil spirits. Goats are slaughtered. Then the agency head or someone else of importance loudly proclaims that he or she is not to be intimidated by some horse-faced reporter. The day will not be completely rearranged because of one reporter’s hostile inquiries. Therefore, deadlines are not met; the reporter and editor are convinced that the organization has something to hide, and the article is damaging. Senior executives from the home office call to find out “what the hell is going on?” Then, all sit down and wonder why the news is so negative.
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.