Many media spokespersons are guarded when speaking to reporters. Perhaps they’ve been burned before or watched as a colleague got grilled by an aggressive investigative journalist.
But little is more disarming to reporters than a spokesperson who conveys an eagerness to speak on-the-record. Reporters are much more likely to believe a person who wants to talk to them than a person who hides behind a wall of attorneys and evasive language.
Generally speaking, you should express openness and an earnest desire to help. That doesn’t mean you have to tell a reporter everything – but it does mean that you should respond to a reporter’s call quickly, answer questions as completely as possible, and make clear that you are open to follow-up questions. Your tone should be professional and unfailingly polite.
As an example, one of our clients is occasionally accused by local television consumer reporters of exploiting a vulnerable population (it doesn’t).
Until a couple of years ago, we provided reporters who called with a written statement on behalf of the group. But I quickly saw that the written statements did a lot of damage. Reporters would show a sympathetic-looking person from the vulnerable population, and would then contrast that with the group’s sterile written statement. It never looked good.
So I decided to use a different approach. When reporters call now, I tell them we’d love to comment, but only if it’s on-camera. I even offer to shoot the video of the interview for the cash-strapped stations and send them the tape. Most stations take me up on that – they call the client on speaker phone, the client does the interview, and we send them the tape.
Before we started doing that, 100 percent of the stories were negative. Today, the mix is much closer to 75 percent neutral, 25 percent negative. It’s not perfect, but it’s a huge improvement.
Consumer reporters are used to spokespersons who “duck and cover,” not spokespersons who invite additional communication. Doing so is disarming, and our open approach with reporters is leading them to conclude there’s more to the story than they originally thought – and they air a more balanced story as a result.