How To Change A Reporter’s Description Of You

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 13, 2014 – 6:02 am

A reader recently wrote in seeking advice about how to change a reporter’s description of her as an “opponent” of a proposed new middle school. “The label is convenient,” she writes, but “it sounds negative and oppositional.” More importantly, she says, it’s inaccurate.

“Our town is currently locked in an ongoing school bond debate revolving primarily around the construction of a new middle school. The bond has failed three times, but the school board and supporters plan to float it yet again.

A number of us in the “no, not in that current iteration” camp are consistently referred to in the media as “opponents” of the bond…it doesn’t accurately convey our position. We are in fact for the bond in that we support a new middle school. But we disagree with proponents on a number of key issues and want the board to back-pedal and revisit prior assumptions…we aren’t opponents of the bond as much as we are “yes, but let’s do this thing right” voters.

Is there a word, or handy phrase, we can use to better identify ourselves, both as we speak with people individually and as presented collectively, via the media?”

Agree Disagree

1. Speak to the reporter

Reporters might use the term “opponent” for a few reasons. First, it may be an accurate descriptor—you are in opposition to the current plan, if not the entire project. Second, reporters working under a strict word count don’t want to burn up words on your descriptor. “Opponent” takes up one word; “who opposes the current plan” takes up five. Finally, “supporter vs. opponent” plays to the media’s tendency to eliminate nuance and reduce characters to simple archetypes.

In this reader’s case, she did contact the reporter—and got positive results. “I contacted the reporter, thanking him for a well-done, objective piece,” she wrote. “I added that I’m not, strictly-speaking, an opponent as I don’t oppose a new school/alternative bond. He asked how he might better describe me in future articles.” Her non-accusatory tone was perfect.

2. Create an irresistible media sound bite

I’d develop an irresistible sound bite, such as this one:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction (or reckless growth, etc.)”

Or, if you want to be more positive:

“The supporters of this bill have consistently misrepresented our position. We are for the construction of a new middle school—but we insist on smart development that serves the community well for many years.”

These sound bites work for three reasons:

1. They oppose something most people would also be against—irresponsible construction or reckless growth—or support something people would be for—smart development.

2. The lead sentence places the blame for misrepresenting your position on the supporters of the bill, not on the media (which might bristle at the accusation).

3. The “for-against” construct of the first sound bite plays to the media’s preference for two-sided conflict, increasing the odds they would choose to use it.

Finally, if you don’t want to come across quite so aggressively (or, if you don’t want to use the term ‘supporters’ in your sound bite), you might choose more neutral language instead:

“Our position has been consistently misrepresented. We are for the construction of a new middle school; we’re against irresponsible construction.”

Thank you for your email, and good luck!

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Your Responses: Is This Smart or Dangerous PR Strategy?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 26, 2014 – 6:02 am

Last week, I asked whether it is ever a smart media relations strategy to wait to return a reporter’s call until just before the deadline. By doing so in specific circumstances, I wrote, you might be able to minimize your role in the story while preventing the reporter from writing that you refused to comment.

You had a lot to say on this topic—thank you for all of your thoughtful comments!—and as I suspected, you had a wide range of opinions. Below are some highlights; you can also read the complete comments in the comment section of this post.

Many of you said that waiting until just before the deadline was bad form, as expressed in the following tweets:

Feb 2014 Tweets Question of the Week

Reader Adam Myrick agrees that waiting is bad form:

”I’ve always gone with a customer service-flavored model of media relations. I look at the reporters and editors I work with as customers. I strive to provide them with a level of access and information that is befitting of a customer receiving any other service. Providing them with information right before ‘closing time’ strikes me as bad customer service.”

Stu Opperman, APR takes a similar take:

“In my experience, reporters will often claim a deadline time that is often earlier than the actual deadline. This happens for a variety of reasons, one of which is to thwart the ’4:58 crowd’ from working the system. Since you never really know if the deadline stated is the true deadline, it has always been my recommendation to position the appropriate message(s) as you feel is best, regardless of timing. If your goal is to keep your client’s connection to the story to a minimum, keep your comments short and to the point and don’t have further conversation/correspondence about the situation.”

But other readers disagreed, arguing that waiting until just before a reporter’s deadline has its benefits. Bill Zucker writes:

“There is at least one situation in which there is little advantage in answering early. If, because of legal complications or the facts in the story, your company will not be in a position to go beyond a short statement — then there is little reason to answer early. Giving time for follow up doesn’t help you.”

But Bill smartly points out that:

“Deadlines are not what they used to be…waiting until deadline hoping to avoid a follow up question will not generally be effective for stories that are posted and updated online.”

Deadline Ahead

Kent agrees:

“I would agree with Bill that you only do it when there’s not much you can say, and would add that you only do it with a reporter you know or suspect to be hostile.”

But he shares this anecdote about a time when that strategy backfired:

“When I first started doing PR at a college, I didn’t have the information to provide a news director who called about a controversy. I pledged to get back to her when I had somebody for her to talk to, but rather than wait she sent a reporter out to talk to anybody she could find…it could…have spun out of control at that point.”

John Barnett sees both sides:

”There is a risk of being left out anyway after waiting so long, or the reporter decides you are hiding something, feels played and then adjusts his or her story toward that angle…So I call it a risk — but argue that risks are strategies.”

And he also points out that reporters use a similar tactic in reverse:

“I would also suggest it works both ways, since reporters working a juicy gotcha story can wait until the last minute to call you for a quote or information in order to put you off-message and limit your options for a reply that meets their deadline.”

Deadline Stopwatch

Finally, one reader who requested anonymity shared an interesting story about his company’s crisis communications regarding the new healthcare marketplace:

“I handle PR [for] a large health insurer, and with the marketplace enrollment issues everyone is having, local TV stations have been finding members who need coverage and using their stories as a way to attack insurance companies…

A couple of weeks ago we were contacted by a member of the local TV media — a reporter who has a history of going aggressively against us whenever possible…

First off, we solved the member’s issue, but as we all know, that was just to crack to door open for the reporter, she was filing the story regardless of the members’ outcome.

I had no intention of putting our executive on air…I had previously witnessed how other local TV stations cut and sliced a seemingly innocent interview with this executive and turned it negative…So I put together a statement from the company, but made it appear as if it was crafted specifically and only for this one reporter, and sent it to her an hour before her deadline.

I did not take her follow up calls, as she also had a tendency to use phone conversations with the PR staff as official comments from the company, and I did not want our off-hand comments to defuse the message of the statement…

The story ran, and not only did she show the statement on air (on our letterhead with logo), she actually read part of the statement in her story…To me, this was a win.”

Thank you for your great comments! If you would like to add any additional thoughts, please use the comments section below.


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Question Of The Week: Is This A Smart Or Risky Strategy?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 17, 2014 – 6:02 am

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you know that I generally advise spokespersons to return a call well before a reporter’s deadline.

Returning calls from reporters on the early side—before they begin writing their stories—can give you influence over the way they view your topic. Your early conversations may lead them to examine angles they hadn’t previously considered and speak with other sources you mentioned. All of that, in turn, may lead to more favorable coverage.

If, on the other hand, you wait to return a reporter’s call until just before his or her deadline, you may reduce your ability to shape the story. By that late point, the journalist has probably already completed 95 percent of the story and will just plug your quote into a small hole left open for you.

But here’s a question: Are there times when you might want to reduce your role in the story—and strategically return a call for a 5:00 p.m. deadline at 4:58 p.m.?

Deadline Ahead

Waiting to return a journalist’s call until just before the deadline could help you in at least two ways: Depending on the circumstance, it could minimize your role in an unfavorable story; and it prevents reporters from being able to write or say that you had “no comment,” a damning phrase that makes you look guilty.

Here are my questions for you: 

Have you ever used this tactic? If so, what were the circumstances? Did it work? If you haven’t, would you consider doing so?

I’ll compile a few of your responses for an upcoming article—so if you’d like some free publicity, please leave a web address along with your comment.

Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!


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Posted in Question of the Week | 6 Comments »

The Best Pitch Letter I’ve Ever Received

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 13, 2014 – 6:02 am

I recently received a letter from Dale Dixon, the author of a new public speaking book called Sweating Bullets: A Story about Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking.

Until I received his note, which was accompanied by a copy of his book, Dale and I had never communicated. But the tone of his pitch letter was perfect—and a great example of the right way to pitch a stranger.

Dale Dixon Note Edited

1. He was familiar with my work

Any journalist or blogger can tell you stories about being pitched by PR professionals who had absolutely no familiarity with their product. I’ve been pitched to do stories on food, sports, and outdoor clothing.

Even people who are familiar with my work sometimes come across as perfunctory. But Dale didn’t. In his letter, he made a sincere effort to convey his familiarity with my coverage area. And as a result, I felt that he deserved my attention.  

2. His pitch looked good

Dale’s letterhead, which included an image of his book cover along with testimonials, looked good. His letter was professionally designed, attractively spaced, and uncluttered by an overabundance of words. Those may seem like small details—but in a business in which appearances matter, he made the most of his sheet of paper. As a result, he persuaded me to put his book toward the top of my “books to read” pile.

3. He made a soft pitch 

More than anything, I appreciated how subtle and respectful his pitch was. His motive for sending me the book—unless he’s the rare altruist—must be for me to read and review it. But in reading his letter, you’d never know it. He let the quality of his approach do the work for him and didn’t feel the need to deliver a blunt call to action. I found that understated approach rare and refreshing. As a result, I decided to reach out to him for permission to reprint his letter and help publicize his book.

I haven’t read Dale’s book yet, so I can’t offer a personal review of it. But if it’s anywhere as thoughtful as his perfect pitch, I’ll be in for a treat when I finally crack the spine.

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Posted in Media Relations | 2 Comments »

Dear Media: Don’t Call Me. And Don’t Leave Me Voice Mails.

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 3, 2013 – 12:02 am

Bill Nowling, the spokesperson for Detroit’s emergency manager, sent reporters a memo recently instructing them to stop leaving him voice mails. has the full text; an excerpt appears below:

To better assist you and your organization with media questions and interview requests, I am instituting a new “contact procedure” that I think will streamline the process and get you the information you need in a timely fashion…

1. Going forward, all media requests (for information, for interviews, for directions) will be handled via e-mail at:

2. If you have a media question, please send an email to: Please be as detailed as possible as to the issue about which you are calling or the specific questions you have. Also include a specific deadline for responding back.

3. Please don’t leave a voice mail message. Believe it or not, VM just adds delay in responding, especially when most messages simply say “call me back.” It is not unusual for me to have 25 or more VMs waiting to be heard at any given time.

Bill Nowling

You might expect me to blast Mr. Nowling. The truth is, I’m empathetic.

Like him, I find telephone voice mails to be the least efficient way to reach me. I respond to emails and tweets much more quickly, and occasionally forget to check my voice mail when I’m out of town. Plus, he’s right – a simple “can you give me a call” voice mail message can be more efficiently delivered via email, text, or tweet. 

The biggest problem with his new policy may not be the policy itself, but the manner in which he communicated it. As an example, here’s a comment Nowling left on the website Deadline Detroit:

“I hate VM. It’s impersonal, inefficient and it fills up two or three times a day…I want to talk to reporters, but I don’t want to waste their time or mine by not being prepared; if I can cut one just one extra return call for each call that comes by being prepared to answer the question when I call back, then I will be able to handle more media calls in a day.”

In his full one-paragraph comment on that website, he used the words “my,” “mine” or “I” a whopping 17 times, showing just how self-centered his message was.

Hand holding a retro telephone isolated on white

Imagine if he had framed his message as a request rather than a formal procedure instead:

“In order to serve your audience, you deserve the fastest-possible response time from me. Because I’m not always in the office, I’m afraid that voice mails don’t always get played as quickly as they should (plus, the voice mail box fills up quickly, preventing some of you from leaving messages). Therefore, in an effort to serve you better, please email your requests to me. In return, I promise to be responsive to your emails in a timely manner. And if you opt to leave a voice mail message, I’ll do my best to listen to it quickly—but please know that’s not always possible and it’s proven to be a much less efficient way to reach me.”

That framing makes it less about him (“I hate VM”) and more about serving the media and the public (“You deserve the fastest-possible response time from me.”)

Of course, that only works if he follows through. One anonymous commenter identifying himself as a reporter on PR Newser writes:

“This would be perfectly reasonable IF Nowling responded to e-mails, which he rarely does. At one point he wanted to communicate by text message, which is insane. And let’s be clear: this isn’t some corporate flack we are talking about. He is essentially the press secretary for the city of Detroit, which is seeking bankruptcy protection under federal law. He is a public servant, and should be responding to the public–and the media–accordingly. In other words, he has no right to be arrogant.”

I have reservations about Mr. Nowling’s policy and am not sure it builds the positive press relations that anyone in a public position should desire. Perhaps he could have made clear that he doesn’t mind people trying to reach him by phone—reporters have the right to contact him using their preferred method, too—but that if he doesn’t pick up, email might be the next-fastest option. 

What do you think? Does a public servant have a right to instill a “no voice mail” policy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Posted in Media Training Tips | 6 Comments »

Can You Help This Reader Manage An Unethical Journalist?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 8, 2013 – 6:02 am

A reader recently wrote in with a problem he’s facing with a local journalist.

His company frequently releases news that impacts the local community and could be fairly considered “newsworthy.” The problem? He works in a small market with just one television station—and that station is irked that his company hasn’t purchased advertising with them.

There’s obviously supposed to be a firewall between news and advertising. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is clear on this one: “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

But the head of this local television station has repeatedly complained to this reader for having the audacity to call his station for news coverage considering that the company has declined to advertise with them.

Salesman Pushy With Contract

What advice would you offer this reader? Keep in mind that the television station is the only one in town, so maintaining positive relations is the ideal outcome here.

Also, have you encountered this type of breach between news and advertising? How have you managed it? And is that practice more common than I think it is?

Please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below. My reader and I look forward to learning from you on this one.

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Posted in Media Relations | 12 Comments »

How Far Should You Stretch For An Interview?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 11, 2013 – 6:02 am

Friend of the blog and crisis pro Melissa Agnes recently wrote me with an interesting question:

“When a reporter seeks you out for a quote on an article they’re writing, it’s always a great opportunity and I always do my best to be able to provide them with what they’re looking for within their time restraints. However, what if the subject is a little bit beyond your scope of knowledge?

In my case, it was about foreign affairs, about which I don’t have a very big grasp; even though the question is related to my niche, it was still a little out of my realm of expertise. My question is: Should you, and if so how, tell the reporter that you unfortunately don’t feel comfortable answering their question/providing them with a quote, rather than researching your heart out, learning about the topic as best you can, and meeting their request?

I hate to miss out on opportunities, and I wouldn’t want this to refrain them from asking me for a quote in the future!”

Mature woman exercising yoga

Melissa, you’ve asked a question that I’ve wrestled with before as well. On one hand, you hate to turn down a media opportunity that can help you enhance your brand. On the other, you don’t want to stretch so far that you’ve bent yourself into rhetorical pretzel!

Since there’s no single right or wrong answer to this one, I’m going to answer your question by presenting both sides of the argument. My guess is that one of these two responses will resonate with you more than the other.

Yes, Do The Interview!

Tom Bettag, my old boss and the former executive producer of Nightline, used to say that he liked to give people a job that was 10 percent beyond their abilities. That challenge, he maintained, would make them try harder — and most of his employees met the challenge.

So ask yourself how much of a stretch this really is. If it’s a 10 percent stretch—or even a 20 or 30 percent stretch—there’s a reasonable case to be made that you should go for it, particularly if you can get yourself up to speed on the topic without having to invest days’ worth of research. I’ve found that doing that additional research builds my capacity to speak on other issues in other contexts. And by building a new competency, you may find that your marketability, in addition to your name recognition, is enhanced by your presence in the news story. 

Remember that in many news stories, all you’ll get is a single quote anyway — regardless of whether you’re the world’s best spokesperson on a given topic or the world’s worst. I’m not suggesting that it’s a good idea to stumble your way through the interview giving unthoughtful answers, but rather that you might consider proceeding if you have a few smart — and maybe even original — points to make.

Finally, if you turn down the interview, there’s a chance the reporter will find another source and use them in the future instead of you, even for topics about which you are an expert. The bottom line is this: Do a gut check. If you feel you can deliver an interview while making a few solid points and without compromising your brand, go for it. 

No, Don’t Do The Interview!

If you’re being asked to stretch too far — say you’re an accountant being asked to comment on engineering issues — turn down the interview. Or, using the numerical guide above, it’s probably best to turn down the interview if you’d have to stretch, say, 80 or 90 percent beyond your abilities. There’s simply no need to risk your brand by commenting on topics that fall too far outside your realm of expertise.

And don’t worry about alienating the journalist. Most reporters respect spokespersons who admit that a topic is outside their realm of expertise, especially when the spokesperson assists them in finding a qualified alternative guest.

Your goal should be to build your long-term reputation as an expert, not to chase every short-term opportunity regardless of the potential risks. If it feels uncomfortable, it probably is an important red flag to you that you should stay in your lane.

Okay, readers. How have you made this decision when you’ve faced a similar dilemma? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.


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Posted in Media Relations | Please Comment »

The Case For Recording Interviews With Reporters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 29, 2013 – 12:02 am

If you thought the New York City mayoral race would get more civil as Anthony Weiner started sinking in the polls and heading toward what will hopefully be a life of J.D. Salinger-like obscurity, you’re wrong.

Two other leading Democratic contenders—Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio—have created plenty of their own drama with a recent kerfuffle over a media misquote

The trouble began when The New York Times star columnist Maureen Dowd mangled a quote from de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, who was speaking about her husband’s opponent, Ms. Quinn.


New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn


Here’s how Ms. Dowd quoted Ms. McCray in her story:

“She’s not accessible,” McCray says. “She’s not the kind of person I feel I can go up to and talk to about issues like taking care of children at a young age and paid sick leave.”

That quote was particularly edgy, since it could be interpreted as a smear against Ms. Quinn, who is a lesbian without children. Ms. Quinn blasted Ms. McCray’s statement.

But it’s not actually what McCray said. She was misquoted.

It turns out that Bill de Blasio’s campaign had recorded the interview. They released the audio of the relevant portion, which shows that the comments were made in a slightly broader context. (Maureen Dowd later blamed the noise in the café and a lousy tape recorder for her fumble; The New York Times issued a lengthy correction.)


“Well, I’m a woman, and she’s not speaking to the issues that I care about, and I think a lot of women feel the same way. I don’t see her speaking to the concerns of women who have to take care of children at a young age or send them to school and after school, paid sick days, issues in the workplace — she’s not speaking to any of those issues. What can I say? And she’s not accessible, she’s not the kind of person that I feel that I can go up and talk to and have a conversation with about those things, and I suspect that other women feel the same thing that I’m feeling.”

My New Advice About Recording Interviews with Reporters

In this case, the difference between the two quotes wasn’t terribly dramatic. But it could have been—and had Mr. de Blasio’s campaign not recorded this interview independently, his cries of “My wife was misquoted!” would have likely fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve previously written that you shouldn’t record your interviews with reporters except for the most challenging situations, since doing so can lead to a climate of mistrust and suspicion before you even begin speaking. I’d continue to stand by that advice for “everyday” interviews—those that don’t hold your company’s, organization’s, or campaign’s reputation in the balance.

But my thinking has evolved on this issue, and I’d now advise spokespersons for political campaigns, businesses dealing with controversial issues, and those dealing with unfriendly media—among others—to consider recording their raw interviews with reporters. That’s not just because reporters occasionally seek a “gotcha” moment, but because even journalists of full integrity can make honest mistakes. And if they do, your recording may be your only evidence that you were wronged.

Without that evidence, it’s easy to see how a single misquote could be all it takes to destroy your candidacy, your company’s stock price, or your reputation.

One final point: Some states require two-party notification. If you’re recording your interviews over the phone, check the laws in your state. To help preserve your long-term relationship with reporters, you should probably tell them you’re recording regardless of the state law.

What do you think? Do you ever record raw copies of your media interviews? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.


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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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