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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Posted in Crisis Communications | 5 Comments »

Dear Reporters: Stop Calling Me Young And Attractive!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 28, 2013 – 6:02 am

A reader from Norway named Susanna recently wrote with an interesting question:

“As a biologist, I would like to be taken seriously and for people to discuss at a professional level. Unfortunately, the debate often shifts towards my looks, the fact that I am young, female, and inexperienced. Could you write more about how to deal with such people, and how to quickly steer the debate back to a professional level when such situations occur?”

“For example, when visiting a farm recently, my fellow colleagues and myself were referred to as ‘the girls from the city’ in a newspaper article—clearly indicating that we do not know what we are talking about when we discuss rural politics.”

Susanna, I sympathize with your predicament. It’s perfectly understandable that you want news articles to focus on your work, not your physical appearance, gender, or age. I have a few ideas for you which may help reduce the number of times this happens—but truthfully, I’m not sure you can prevent it from occurring entirely.

Female Scientist Studying Test Tube In Laboratory

First, let me take this from a reporter’s perspective for a moment. A reporter’s job is to set the scene, to describe the who, what, when, where, and why of a story. I suspect that many times, the adjectives used to describe you are intended primarily to help readers create an image of who you are. Even if that isn’t the most relevant information in a story, the “who” often helps sell the “what and why.” Depending on the story, your age and level of experience may be relevant.

I’m more troubled by the reference to “the girls from the city,” or any other adjectives used primarily to dismiss your expertise and reduce your credibility in the eyes of readers. Below, you’ll find five ideas that might help.

1. Discuss The Issue With Reporters Before Agreeing To The Interview

It might be worth speaking to reporters about your concern prior to accepting the interview. You might say, “Before I agree to this interview, I was hoping to discuss one thing with you. Some reporters have mentioned my looks and age in their stories, which makes me deeply uncomfortable. Is that important information for you to include, or would you be willing to focus primarily on our work?”

Some reporters may not comply with your request. And in unusual circumstances, some might even disclose your request to the audience. But given the nature of your work, I’m not sure I see much harm in trying to have that conversation prior to an interview.

2. Praise Reporters Who Interview You

You might also be able to use a more subtle approach. If a reporter comes to visit your field site and begins asking you about your work, for example, you may stop for a moment and say, “You know, I really appreciate that your questions are so focused on our work. I’ve dealt with some reporters before who focused on my age, gender, and looks, and that always made me uncomfortable. So thank you for taking me and my work so seriously!”

That compliment may send a signal to the reporter not to focus on those other areas. I suspect that many female reporters will feel empathetic and that many male journalists would want to avoid stepping on a gender landmine. That said, your age, gender, and level of experience may be relevant, depending on the story.

Woman entomologist 4

3. Transition Away From Those Topics During The Interview

In some ways, reporters who bring up these sensitive topics during the interview are doing you a favor. That’s because sometimes, they will never ask you those questions directly but will still include those points in their stories.

If you’re asked those questions directly, you might just say, “You know, those questions make me uncomfortable. I’d prefer focusing on the work we’re doing here.” But before you do that, you should know the type of story the reporter is working on. Longer “feature” stories typically include information about your age and background, while straight “news” stories often don’t.

Just be aware that your strong objection to otherwise innocuous questions about your age might catch the attention of some reporters, making them more likely to include that information in their stories. So use a soft touch here, and try not to make your objections too strident.

4. Counter The Objections During The Interview

Generally speaking, it’s not a great idea to introduce negatives yourself. But if you think the reporter is leaning toward a “girls from the city” angle, you might try to preempt that by coming up with a compelling sound bite yourself.

For example, you might say: “Some of our critics have tried to discredit us as being from the city, but they ignore the fact that we’ve been living in/working with local communities full-time for the past six years.”

5. Reframe The Issue As a Positive In Your Own Mind

My wife is a biology professor, so I’m quite sensitive to the issue of gender and science. Too often, women are discouraged from going into science or are brought up in environments where it’s not even regarded as an option.

So you might consider how being cast as a “young, bright, attractive” woman in science may influence other people, particularly younger girls who hadn’t considered science as a career. Perhaps some young girl will see your story and awaken to the possibility of science as a career for her, too.  Sometimes, all it takes to inspire someone younger is someone older who’s viewed as “cool.”

I recognize that does not apply to every story—especially those that use your demographic attributes to dismiss your credibility—but it may apply to some. Finally, although you might be concerned that mentioning your age or looks is automatically a credibility-buster, I’m not sure that’s always the case. Perhaps you can be seen as young, attractive, and credible.

Thank you for your question, Susanna. I hope there are a few ideas in here that help you as you progress in your career. Good luck!

Do you have any additional suggestions for Susanna? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!


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Posted in Media Relations | 7 Comments »

This Reporter Wants To Get Into Your Bedroom

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 5, 2013 – 6:02 am

As readers of this blog know, I worked at ABC News and CNN before launching Phillips Media Relations, my media and presentation training firm, in 2004.

I still have many friends who work in news, and some have commented to me that media trainers make their lives more difficult. They’re right, of course—without media trainers, inexperienced (and even many experienced) spokespersons would be much more likely to blurt out anything that comes to their mind, no matter how damaging those comments might be.

That’s bad for spokespersons, but it’s great for journalists seeking exciting copy.

But what those same journalists are less likely to acknowledge is that experienced journalists often hold the vast majority of the power when interviewing a person without much media experience. As an example, watch this video interview with Lane DeGregory, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with The Tampa Bay Times.

Based on watching this video, I have little doubt that Ms. DeGregory is an honest, thoughtful and sensitive journalist. But she’s also an experienced reporter who uses tricks of the trade to get people to say things they otherwise wouldn’t.

Ms. DeGregory uses those skills to elicit information from otherwise reluctant spokespersons and write excellent feature stories, such as the painful “The Girl In The Window.” But some other reporters use similar strategies for more nefarious—or at least “gotcha”—purposes. And that’s where media training can help even out the balance of power between an experienced scribe and an inexperienced interview subject.

 

Lane DeGregory

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University, presents the 2009 Feature Writing prize to Lane DeGregory.

 

Like many investigative or feature journalists, Ms. DeGregory uses common ground to get people talking. In her case, she discusses “dogs, kids, and cars” to find shared experiences.

But it was her final point that I’ve never heard before; she wants to interview subjects in their bedrooms. From the standpoint of getting targets of features to talk, her approach makes a lot of sense. In business or political situations, of course, few reporters would invite themselves into your bedroom for an interview (not without landing on the front page of a tabloid, anyway), but they might look for similar ways to put you at ease. “Going to lunch” is a notorious favorite, especially when the spokesperson has a few drinks that loosen their lips.

The next time you hear a journalist complain that media training tilts the balance of power too far in the spokesperson’s direction, you might acknowledge that that’s occasionally true—but remind them that the imbalance often runs the other direction, as well.

Seriously, why haven’t you signed up to have the best of the blog delivered to your inbox twice per month yet? Enter your email address in the box on the upper right of the blog to join our mailing list.


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What To Do When A Reporter Becomes A Pest

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on July 25, 2013 – 6:02 am

Reporters often call sources just to “keep in touch” and stay on top of trends and developing issues in the beats they cover. They cultivate these relationships to build trust in hopes of being the first to get inside information when stories break.

While beneficial for the reporter, it can also benefit you as a source — when carefully managed — by giving you influence in beat coverage and a possible warning if a negative story about your organization is imminent.

But what should you do if that reporter becomes a pest?

I’ve had clients forced to deal with reporters who call all the time. Some of those reporters call multiple officers at a company constantly and even bully them into talking by threatening to print that the company had “no comment,” even when the story had nothing to do with them.

This can create a problem within an organization working to control information flow and image. When reporters regularly catch your officers off guard or bully them into talking when they don’t have time or aren’t prepared, you can lose control over your information. That’s great for the reporter and terrible for you.

Still, dealing with this is tricky business. You typically can’t afford to blow off the reporter and risk losing influence; yet, at the same time, having little to no control over outgoing information can be dangerous for your organization.

A few steps may help you deal with such situations:  

1. Make sure there’s an organization-wide policy on talking to reporters.

Create a company policy that insists anybody talking to a reporter clears it through your communications team before the conversation continues. Make sure your executives are on board. They should be comfortable saying, “Out of respect for my communications department, I have to ask that you schedule any interviews and discussions through them.”

2. Have a point of contact.

This can be one person or a small group of people in your organization in charge of handling all reporter requests expeditiously. Explain to the reporter you’re happy to connect him or her with the person best equipped to provide the information needed in a reasonable timeframe, but that the request should go through you or your team. Although that may appear obstructionist, the truth is that there are many times this helps the reporter, such as when a key spokesperson is out of the country, on vacation, or otherwise unreachable; or when you know of someone in your company who has more expertise in the reporter’s area of interest.

3. Make it worth their while.

If there’s an important story approaching or a move your company is making, you can occasionally give your pesky reporter the information first. In exchange, explain that you expect the reporter to respect your point of contact rule and the fact that, when a story doesn’t have anything to do with your company, they shouldn’t print that you had “no comment.” By doing this, the reporter will have less motivation to unfairly pressure you into speaking with him or her.

What do you think? How do have you managed reporters who constantly check in? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Seven Reasonable “Pre-Conditions” For An Interview

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

I recently received an email from a reader who was arranging an interview for a client.

He wondered whether it was possible to put a written agreement in place with the producer prior to the interview that would prohibit the crew from using any ‘gotcha’ moments in which an unexpected document or video clip might be produced during the interview.

My answer was no. Not only could that request be disclosed on the air, making the audience suspicious, but it would make the producer wonder what big controversy he was missing.

Still, the question made me wonder: What pre-conditions are reasonable when negotiating with a reporter prior to an interview? 

Press Conference

 

1. Spokespersons

If a reporter is visiting your office, you can reach an agreement that the reporter is only allowed to quote the agreed-upon spokesperson(s). In other words, if reporters strike up a conversation with random staff members in the bathroom, they wouldn’t be able to use those comments in his story.

 

2. Shots

You may be able to negotiate what the reporter can and cannot shoot. For example, you might ask the reporter not to shoot any employees’ computer screens or papers on their desks, since those shots could reveal private customer information.

 

3. Photography

Depending on the story, you might not want to allow photography. If you work for a car company that is creating a new prototype, for example, you might allow the journalist to see it without allowing any photos of the vehicle.   

 

4. Terms

Although most interviews should be on-the-record, you may occasionally face circumstances that require an “on background” or “off-the-record” interview. You should reach any agreements prior to an interview (these guidelines will help). And you can request to be identified in a specific manner.

 

5. Length

If you suspect that a reporter is going to go on a fishing expedition, you can negotiate the length of the interview in advance. 

 

6. Topic(s)

Here’s where things get tricky. You can request to limit the interview either to topics you do want to discuss (e.g. a basketball coach who wants to discuss his team’s latest game), or to avoid topics you don’t want to discuss (e.g. your star center’s recent drunk driving arrest). But even if reporters agree to such a pre-condition, they often disclose the very pre-condition to their audiences (in some cases, they’re ethically bound to do so). So before you make such a request, ask yourself whether that disclosure could be more damaging than answering the tough questions.

 

7. Sensitive Information

Occasionally, reporters may be willing to exclude certain information from their stories—if there’s a legitimate reason to avoid such information. For example, many reporters would be willing to exclude information that could humiliate an innocent person or that contains sensitive national security details. But I’ve also worked with reporters who agreed to kill sensitive parts of a client’s story today in exchange for an exclusive when we were ready to release the story at some future point.

 

What have I missed? What other pre-conditions have you negotiated with a reporter in the past? Please leave your experiences in the comments section below.

 


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Posted in Media Training Tips | 2 Comments »

Dear Governor: Blacklisting The Media Is A Bad Idea

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 20, 2013 – 6:02 am

Paul LePage, the controversial Republican governor of Maine, has a long history of contentious relations with the press. But the negative coverage his top environmental regulator received in a few local newspapers recently sent him over the edge.

According to the Portland Press Herald, LePage announced through a spokesperson on Tuesday that his administration “will no longer comment on stories published by the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel.” In other words, he’s blacklisting three of his state’s newspapers.

He may think he’s punishing them. But he’s the one who’s likely to pay the price.

Paul LePage

Let’s put this in context. When Governor LePage won the gubernatorial race in 2010 (a race that he barely won), a total of 565,542 Maine residents cast votes. The three newspapers LePage just blacklisted have a combined paid Sunday circulation of more than 100,000—which translates to many more readers. That’s an awful lot of people Governor LePage is opting not to communicate with directly anymore.

In The Media Training Bible, I describe “The Rule of Thirds,” which makes clear why the Governor’s decision is a bad one. There are three voices in many news stories—yours, your opponent’s, and the reporter’s. If you refuse interviews about which you’re the subject, “The Rule of Thirds” states that you’ll likely go 0-for-3 in the story.

 

1/3 — Your Opponent’s Voice

1/3 — The Reporter’s Voice

1/3 — Your Voice

 

That’s because your opponent will almost surely be critical of you in their one-third of the story, and reporters may hold your refusal to comment against you by slanting the tone of their one-third in favor of your opponent.

Speaking to the reporter doesn’t guarantee you a positive story, as the LePage Administration already knows. But it’s still usually worth agreeing to the interview since going 1-for-3 is a whole lot better than not scoring at all. Plus, his participation in the story would make clear to the public that he’s not in “duck and cover” mode.

Instead of blacklisting a news organization—which should always be a rare last resort—his administration should at the very least comment on stories by providing a short, written statement to the three papers. That prevents the reporters from saying LePage refused to comment (which looks obstructionist), and gives him at least some control over his own point of view. If he sends just a line or two, the papers will likely be forced to print them verbatim.

And that’s a whole lot better than striking out.

What do you think? Is Governor LePage right to blacklist these news organizations, or is he just hurting himself? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

A grateful tip o’ the hat to reader Steve Weitzman. Paul LePage photo by Jim Bowdoin.

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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.

    Brad Phillips

    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.

    Brad Phillips

    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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