Many media trainers offer their clients this straightforward tip for interacting with journalists: “Return a reporter’s call before his deadline.”
It’s terrible advice.
Let’s say a reporter calls you at 9 a.m. He tells you he’s working on a story about your organization for tomorrow’s paper and needs a quote by 4 p.m. today.
If you return his call at 3:50 p.m., he’s likely already written most of the story. In fact, 95 percent of his story is probably completed, and he’ll just drop your quote into the article to make sure you were represented in the piece.
But you’ve done absolutely nothing to help shape his story angle, increase his understanding of your issues, or refer him to your allies (and less vehement opponents) for their comments. As a result, the story will be comprised of the reporter’s perspective and that of everyone else he’s spoken to – and your quote will have minimal impact.
Instead, tell the reporter you’ll call him back by 10 a.m. Since he knows he’ll get a comment from you early in the day, he won’t feel as compelled to scramble for alternate sources.
Spend that hour drafting a few talking points, and support them with compelling stories and statistics. You may even have have time to develop a sound bite that summarizes your main point in a memorable phrase.
Calling him back by 10 a.m means you’ve probably reached him before he’s written the article’s first word, which gives you a terrific opportunity to help shape his perspective and influence his final story into one that more fully represents your viewpoints.
Returning his call early in the day may also change the questions the reporter asks other sources later in the day. He’ll ask them to react to your quotes, meaning they’re talking about your issues through your perspective, not theirs.
Finally, returning the reporter’s call early allows you to offer a follow-up phone call later in the day to react to what he learned throughout his reporting. Many journalists will take you up on that, meaning you get two bites at the apple instead of one inconsequential nibble.
Here’s the correct advice: “Return a reporter’s call as quickly as possible after his original call, well before his deadline.”