Do you want to influence the story? Then you need to talk to reporters.
It’s crucial to find your comfort zone.
Answering “how or why” questions.
Do not be intimidated into meeting unreasonable deadlines.
There will be times when it is clearly to your advantage to “buy yourself a day.”
It is perfectly justifiable to use your website or technical documents to respond to some inquiries when appropriate.
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 fifth 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 of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.
Finding the Right Words
The straightforward approach often means finding words that you are comfortable with. For many of us, words that end in “ly” are agonizingly difficult. For some, the difference between “antagonize” and the far more complex “agonizingly” is immense. Try to find an array of words that fit you as comfortably as your favorite pair of jeans. Stick to them. Please do not be like some who feel compelled to send listeners and readers to the dictionary; they seem to take great comfort in their ability to confuse. They are not successful communicators.
The very essence of public affairs is the ability to communicate crisply and cleanly. To accomplish this, you need to find language that is comfortable for both you and your audience. Respond appropriately to your listeners, but in ninety percent of your public statements, leave the difficult words at home. While many will suggest that this is part of the “dumbing down of America,” I completely disagree.
Finally, please avoid organizational jargon at all costs. No one will understand the terms that are unique to you and your organization. If no one understands them, then it completely defeats your communication objectives to use them.
Finding Your Comfort Zone
All of this comes under the heading of finding your comfort zone. The words you use, how you dress, how you feel and how comfortable you are with your subject matter are important to your psychological well-being. Try through trial and error to find your comfort zone. Remember what makes you feel good. Then try to emulate these circumstances as much as possible when doing future interviews.
Answering How or Why Questions
One of the most difficult inquiries to answer are “how or why” questions. Answering questions about who, what, when, and where are easy; they all pertain to the basics of any event. It is the “why” question that frequently gets organizational representatives into trouble. The “why” question pertains to the motives of your organization. The motivation for the organization’s actions will often define the story.
There are few media reports without input from those who will profit from your dilemma. These individuals include competitors, dissatisfied consumers, angry stockholders, advocates, union members, employees and many others. Any or all will try to shape the story in a way that benefits them. Rarely do detractors contact the media to defend your organization. They do not call to rave about your intricate quality control standards or your dedication to customer safety.
They do not convey the contextual information of national studies that indicate that one out of every 100,000 cases of widgets will have problems. They will imply negative motives. The fact that a case of defective widgets made its way to the market and is suspected of causing health problems is difficult to handle. Reporters will ask you how or why this occurred.
Thus, answering the “why or how” question becomes paramount. The public is aware that mistakes will happen within any large organization, but everyone recognizes that few will accept deceit. There’s clearly a huge difference between making a mistake and the purposeful dumping of the case of defective widgets into the public domain.
So it becomes obvious that you will be asked the “why or how” question. Why did the organization create the case of defective widgets? How did this happen? Is it a case of purposeful sabotage? Did your organization violate industry standards? Did you know that the case of widgets was defective before it was introduced to the public? You must create an answer that is simple, honest, well documented, and resonates with the public.
Some people in public affairs will suggest that you not answer the “why” question. They believe that they are just too dangerous and difficult to answer. I strongly disagree. Your persona must be that of an honest individual doing an honest job in service to the public. Anything less than this plays into the hands of your detractors, provides ammunition to those in the media who question your motives and convinces the general public that you have something to hide. Answering “why or how” questions simply and directly is a crucial element in any successful media interview.
Do not be intimidated into meeting unreasonable deadlines. If you do not have a copy of the 250-page report in question, then you are under no obligation to respond until you’ve had a chance to read it and discuss it with your technical experts and executives. If a reporter calls at three o’ clock in the afternoon with a deadline in two hours and you are unprepared to answer, then don’t. Ninety-five percent of the telephone calls into my organizations are answered on the same day, and virtually all deadlines beyond that are met. Even if an inquiry comes in the late afternoon, I will make every effort to meet the reporter’s deadlines. If I am not prepared to provide an answer that is honest and meets the organization’s objectives, I will not respond.
Hopefully, you have enough of a relationship with the reporter and the people they represent for them to understand that it is impossible for you to meet their deadlines. If they do not understand, that’s tough. You have an ethical obligation to try to answer questions in a timeframe they desire. You are not required to do the impossible.
Buy Yourself a Day
There will be times when it is clearly to your advantage to “buy yourself a day.” I mentioned it earlier in this chapter, but it deserves more attention.
A reporter called from a wire service to get our comment on a report from the U.S. Department of Justice stating that there had been a dramatic decline in the success of criminal offenders on community supervision. The editor was told by the “Justice” spokesperson that we had supplied the information, as did all other states. “If it’s your data supplied to a reputable organization, then you should be able to comment on it,” he said.
The problem was that the individual responsible for supplying the information was on vacation. You will find that within all organizations; there are experts who know a great deal about individual issues, but no one else is equally knowledgeable. Many assume that their supervisor or others in the unit also have the same knowledge. Often they do not.
The media call came late in the day and I made every attempt to research the issue and respond. I did not want my organization to suffer potential bad news without a response. As I found out, without that key person, no one knew the “real” reason for the decline. By the time I responded to the editor, he told me that he was stuck; he had space to fill and had to run the story.
I did the best I could under the circumstances and provided reasons for the decrease that seemed to make sense. I was also aware of other research indicating that the success of offenders on community supervision had declined, so I felt it was reasonable to respond. When the expert returned from vacation on Monday, he explained that the decrease was a result of an obscure change in the law. “It wasn’t a real decrease in success of offenders,” he explained. “It was just different numbers based on a new law.”
I should have bought myself a day. As soon as I found out that the expert was not available and that others were unsure, I should have insisted to the editor that we were not in a position to respond. If the editor persisted, then I should have appealed to someone higher. Against my better instincts, I did the interview. Sometimes it’s better to push the media inquiry to the next day when it’s ethical to do so. A day can buy you a lot of wisdom. A day can also bring new stories that cause the reporter to completely lose interest, especially if you push the story to Monday (thus buying yourself a weekend).
Responding in Detail
Some organizations try to be disingenuous by responding to questions with referrals to confusing tactical or legal documents as the organization’s “sole” response. I think reporters can figure out when you are helpful or not (although they have a much more colorful term for it).
It is, however, perfectly justifiable to use your website or technical documents to respond to some inquiries when appropriate. Posting documents on your web or social media site can also be of immense assistance when you are dealing with multiple requests for the same information. Some media inquiries and ninety percent of student or public requests are nicely handled through this method.
There is nothing disingenuous about responding in great detail to a reporter’s questions or providing technical or legal documents. After all, you are simply responding to their inquiries and it may be the best response you have. Sometimes, it’s clearly in your best interest to answer in a very detailed way. Just be prepared for follow-up questions.
Success With the Media
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].