Wiggle Room-Playing Hardball With Reporters-The Art of the Interview

by admin on March 31, 2017


Do you want to influence the story? Then you need to talk to reporters.

Your job is to provide “wiggle room,” and as much flexibility as possible for your executives.

Despite everything that I have said about minimizing confrontations with the media, there are times when you have to play hardball.

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 tenth 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.


Wiggle Room

Your job is to provide “wiggle room” and as much flexibility as possible for your executives. If a reporter asks you to provide the completion date of a project, and you were told that the date is May 1, then I would suggest you say that the project will be completed early that summer. Better yet, convince your executives to provide you with a date or circumstances that everyone can live with and stick to.

Remind them that many pronouncements never seem to come true. Everything in government or business is flexible except our executives. They see themselves as “in charge” of circumstances.

I have seen times when an executive sets a date for the implementation of a major project and announces it to all concerned. Yet the technical experts insist that it cannot be done by that time. I would return the executive and inform him of the discrepancy, yet he will once again tell me that the date is accurate. The technical experts are equally adamant that it is not. I was once caught in the middle and was blamed by the technocrats for creating a problem (I guess they believed they could blame me but not the boss)!

My “assumption” in all of this was that the executive was sending a message to the technical experts to meet his deadlines. The technical experts were also sending a message to the boss that her deadlines were impossible. Most public affairs professionals tell me that this state of affairs is not unusual.

Is a “wiggle room” response disingenuous? It’s possible but far more preferable than providing firm responses to circumstances where the results are unclear (quite frankly, the circumstances are always unclear).

Reporters may hold you to your pronouncements. It is possible that negative articles will result when your stated circumstances are not met. The best alternative is to explain the difficulties involving the “fluid” nature of your enterprise. As always, honesty is the best policy.

Providing accurate descriptions of the delays (i.e., weather and construction projects) may buy the additional time you need while keeping the media informed (thus the beauty of extensive off-the-record conversations).

Once again, if you are seen as a reputable and helpful spokesperson, you might have enough credibility in the bank for them to give you the benefit of the doubt. You have to become knowledgeable of the circumstances to be seen as a worthy spokesperson. You may have to devote a considerable amount of time to the project to understand and explain it fully.

Some in the public affairs business call this “dancing around the issue.” Well, in my years of talking to the media, I have done enough to dances to make detractors envious.

Do your best not to put your executives and organization into a corner with no room to turn or change their minds. Be both ethical and flexible with your answers.


Despite everything that I have said about minimizing confrontations with the media, there are times when you have to play hardball. There are reporters without ethics. There are editors who assign conclusions to stories regardless of the facts. At times, reporters fabricate data.

There are news people who will embrace every negative assertion by every employee regardless of the ridiculousness of the claims. There are also members of the media who will not give you or your organization an even break.

The “hardball” strategy does not apply to one story or a reporter with credibility. Everyone is entitled to “bad days.” Even the best of journalists get stuck with assignments where management is being stupid.

We know how to take a hit. Let’s not overreact to difficult circumstances.

If wronged, then discuss it directly with the reporter first. If that does not work, go to management. State your facts and observations plainly and dispassionately. Do not lose your composure. Understand that they make the final decision, and you may lose the argument. If they know you and trust you, you will get a fair hearing and some consideration.

If you are on the receiving end of blatant unfairness over a period of time, then you may have a “different” relationship with a reporter. This is done with full knowledge that higher-ups within the news organization will probably back the reporter before they back you.

What do I mean by “hardball”? First, it does not mean that you refuse to answer the reporter’s questions. The vast majority of us, in both the public and private arena, are “obligated” to respond to questions posed by the media. It is in our organization’s best interest.

But the reporter will get nothing else beyond a very precise answer. I will not provide context, off-the-record explanations, or any elaboration whatsoever.

If I have twenty media calls on a hot topic, then guess who will be the last to be called? Needless to say, this tactic should be used very rarely and saved only for the most unethical of reporters.

Note that there are some in my profession who believe that my version of hardball hardly fits the criteria; they refuse to respond to the reporter in any way. In my years of service, I have done this very infrequently.

I often say that we should not take hostages. I remind everyone that we’re ethically or realistically bound to answer questions. This tactic is also guaranteed to produce negative news, so your executives need to be aware of the strategy. Sometimes, unethical reporters give you no choice.

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 leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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