Posts Tagged ‘media relations tips’
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.
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.
Tags: Lane DeGregory, media relations tips, working with reporters
Posted in Media Relations | 1 Comment »
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.
Tags: media relations tips, working with reporters
Posted in Media Relations | Please Comment »
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you suspect that a reporter is going to go on a fishing expedition, you can negotiate the length of the interview in advance.
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.
Tags: media relations tips, PR tips, Public Relations, working with reporters
Posted in Media Training Tips | 2 Comments »
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.
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.
Tags: Kennebec Journal, media relations tips, Morning Sentinel, paul lepage, Portland Press Herald, working with reporters
Posted in Crisis Communications | 3 Comments »
After finishing a recent media training workshop, one of the attendees approached to ask me a question.
“I know that you usually advise spokespeople to agree to interviews when their company or organization will be mentioned in the story,” he said. “But what about those times when you want to minimize your presence in the story? Aren’t there times you can decrease your presence in the story by refusing to participate?”
The answer is yes. But the risks of employing that approach can be quite high, and decisions to do so should only be made by seasoned pros who can accurately assess them. Either way, use these methods in unusual or extreme circumstances only. These are aggressive techniques that do little to build positive and long-term relationships with the press.
Here are four ways in which you might be able to minimize or kill a story:
1. Respond by Email: A short email statement prevents reporters from being able to say you had “no comment,” but also prevents them from asking follow-up questions that could get you into trouble.
2. Be Boring: Typically, we recommend that media spokespersons help their quotes stand out by using action-oriented and evocative language. (Read “10 Ways to Create Memorable Sound Bites.”) But the opposite is also true; if you don’t want to stand out, using boring and process-oriented language is a good way to do it. For example, if you’re asked about one of your nonprofit organization’s donors—a man who was just arrested for tax evasion—you might just say, “It’s an unfortunate situation for all parties involved.”
3. Let Someone Else Take The Heat: Let’s say there will be a negative story about a project you and two other corporate partners are involved in. If you get wind that one of the other partners has agreed to speak to the reporter (and yes, that happens), it may take some of the pressure off of you to speak. In some situations, you may be able to let the other company do the only full interview—and take most of the heat—while you offer only a short written statement instead.
4. Don’t Participate: There are some cases in which a reporter cannot write a story without your corroboration. They may have gotten a tip from someone about something related to your company or your work—but if you’re the only people who know certain information, the reporter may not be able to write the story unless you confirm it for them. Obviously, this is extremely risky. Reporters may file the story mentioning the allegation while stating that you refused to comment. Or they may be successful in finding a disgruntled employee who agrees to speak on background. Or they may have more information then they’re telling you, allowing them to file the story without your participation. With all of those risks, you may wonder why I’m including this option here at all. The reason? I know several professional communicators who have used this strategy successfully.
Have you ever successfully minimized your presence in a news story—or killed it altogether? What strategies did you use to do it? Please share your stories in the comments section below.
Tags: advanced media training technique, media relations tips, working with reporters
Posted in Media Training Tips | 5 Comments »
A local reporter is scheduled to visit your office in a few days to conduct an interview with you.
It’s a critical interview for your company, one that will impact your growth, your reputation, and your bottom line. You prepare for it carefully, huddling with your leadership team and preparing highly memorable media messages that will gain the audience’s attention—and trust. You may even conduct a mock interviewing session to gain comfort when answering challenging questions.
When the interview date arrives, you feel well-prepared. But you forgot one critical fact, one that threatens to undermine all of your efforts. Having a well-trained management team isn’t enough.
Journalists know that many executives and managers have received media training, so they occasionally circumvent the official chain of command in order to speak with a less trained (and more candid) junior staffer. With just a few careless words, those subordinates can undermine all of your media training and carefully plotted communications strategy.
As an example, check out the jaw-dropping words uttered by a young professional in this video:
When reporters visit your office, any interaction they have with employees, interns, and receptionists are considered “on the record.” Unless you reach an agreement otherwise, reporters can use their comments—and they will, especially if the quotes your employees utter are more colorful than anything a well-trained manager said. Therefore, it’s up to you to make sure your staff knows what to do and say when they’re in the presence of reporters.
This article will arm you with six specific things to do next time you’re expecting a visit from a journalist.
1. Assign an Escort
Assign an escort whenever journalists visit your office. That will help prevent reporters from “accidentally getting lost” on the way to the restroom, wandering the hallways, and striking up a conversation with the wrong person.
If the reporter is visiting your office to interview your Chief Executive Officer, for example, you can assign the CEO’s assistant as the escort. But if that assistant hasn’t received media training and isn’t familiar with your company’s main talking points, you might consider assigning an experienced media representative from your communications department instead.
2. Forge an Agreement With The Reporter
To help prevent the problem of “wandering reporters,” some organizations negotiate the terms of the interview prior to the reporter’s visit. You might consider restricting their access to personnel by asking them to agree to speak only with the previously agreed upon subject(s) of the interview.
You can also negotiate what reporters are allowed to film prior to visiting your company. For example, you might ask them not to shoot employees’ computer screens or papers on their desks.
Although many reporters are happy to comply with such terms, some may bristle at your request and disclose those agreements (or requests for those agreements) to their audience.
3. Notify Your Staff
One week before the reporter visits—and again on the day of the visit—send an email to staff alerting them to the impending visit and reminding them of your media policy.
Your media policy might allow only authorized spokespersons to speak to the press, especially when dealing with a hostile reporter or a particularly challenging subject. In those cases, instruct unauthorized employees who are approached by reporters to say that they’re not the best person to answer their questions and offer to connect them with a member of the communications department.
Although that approach may be best in some circumstances, keep in mind that reporters may note in their stories that your employees seemed “nervous” and refused to speak with them. Plus, as a practical matter, it may be difficult to prevent journalists from speaking to someone they encounter in a hallway or common area, especially if the interaction is being filmed (your on-camera intrusion would be noteworthy and could become part of the story).
4. Brief Staff with Key Messages
In some circumstances, it’s better to allow your staff to answer basic questions about their work and your organization. That’s especially true if the reporter doesn’t typically write hostile stories and the focus of the interview with your company is about an uncontroversial topic.
If you plan on allowing your employees to speak with a reporter who approaches them in a hallway or during a tour of the office, you should prepare basic media guidelines for your staff, and provide them with your key messages so they know what the “company line” is.
It’s also a good idea to remind employees to “stay in their lanes.” It’s okay for engineers to discuss the technical details of your company’s new software, for example, but they should refuse questions that are “outside their lanes,” such as those about global marketing strategy.
5. Remind Them to Avoid The “Seven-Second Stray”
Some reporters put their subjects at ease with a warm smile, friendly demeanor, and conversational style. So if you’re going to allow staff to speak with reporters, remind them to avoid the “seven-second stray.”
The “seven-second stray” occurs when a spokesperson who is “on message” for nine minutes and 53 seconds of a ten-minute interview delivers an “off-message” quote that lasts just a few seconds. Journalists recognize those unplanned moments as newsworthy, and often use them in their news stories. So if your employee shares a wacky anecdote, disparages a competitor, or criticizes a management decision, you can bet it will make its way into the segment.
6. Ask Them to Tidy Up
Instruct your staff to remove any confidential or sensitive papers from their desktops and to avoid displaying sensitive documents on their computer screens. Ask them to remove overtly political messages from their work areas (e.g. posters and bumper stickers) that, in some cases, can endanger an organization’s tax-exempt status. You might even ask them to do a little housekeeping to leave a neat appearance.
In order to add “color” to their stories, good reporters pay attention to interesting details within eyesight or earshot. As an example, I know of one executive who decorated his office rather lavishly, largely at taxpayer expense. When a scandal erupted at his organization, reporters were quick to note the expensive rug and antique chair in his office. So before a journalist visits your office, walk through the entire office space, try to see the workspace through the eyes of a skeptical journalist, and make any necessary adjustments.
This article was originally published in the American Management Association’s monthly e-newsletter, Leader’s Edge. Brad Phillips is the author of The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
Tags: media relations tips, Public Relations
Posted in Media Training Tips | 2 Comments »
This is an excerpt fromThe Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available in soft cover and all major e-book formats.
In lesson 2, I mentioned that you shouldn’t conduct an interview the moment reporters call. Instead, I advised that you should offer to return their calls promptly, and for you to take at least a few minutes to prepare for the interview before you speak.
But before you hang up from that initial phone call, take a few minutes to “interview” the reporter. Many journalists are willing to share the basics about the stories they’re working on, and any insight they offer will help you better prepare.
Below are eight questions you might consider asking reporters. I typically don’t ask all of these for every interview, since journalists don’t appreciate being grilled. But they’ll probably offer some of this information on their own anyway, so just fill in any gaps by asking the most relevant of these questions:
- 1. Who are you? No, you shouldn’t ask that question verbatim, but collect the basics—their name, the name of the news organization for which they work, and whether they cover a particular topic.
- 2. Can you tell me about the story you’re working on? Keep this question open-ended and remain quiet while the reporter speaks (the more they say, the more you’ll learn). Feel free to ask follow-up questions and to clarify any points you don’t fully understand.
- 3. Are you approaching this story from any particular perspective? Some reporters will bristle if you ask, “What’s your angle?” This question aims to elicit the same information in a more subtle manner.
- 4. Who else are you interviewing? Reporters often play it close to the vest on this one, but it’s worth asking. You’ll be able to get a sense of the story’s tone by learning whether the other sources in the story are friendly or antagonistic toward your cause.
- 5. What’s the format? For print interviews, this question will help you determine whether reporters just need a quick quote from you or whether they’re writing an in-depth piece that will focus extensively on your work. For broadcast interviews, you’ll be able to learn whether the interview will be live, live-to-tape, or edited. For television, you might also ask if the format will be a remote, on-set, or sound-bites interview.
- 6. What do you need from me? Ask the reporter how much time the interview will last and where the reporter wants to conduct the interview. Also, ask if you can provide any press releases, graphics, photos, videos, or other supplementary documents. You can often expand your presence in a news story—and influence the narrative—if the reporter chooses to use your supporting materials.
- 7. Who will be doing the interview? For many radio and television interviews, you will be contacted initially by an off-air producer rather than by an on-air personality. Ask for the name of the person conducting the interview.
- 8. When are you publishing or airing the story? Review the story as soon as it comes out. If it’s a positive story, share it with your online and off-line networks. If it’s a negative story, consider issuing a response or contacting the reporter or editor to discuss the coverage.
One final note: Before an interview, tell reporters how you prefer to be identified. Include your title and company name, and spell your full name. Nothing is worse than seeing your name or company’s name mangled in front of millions of viewers!
Click here for more information about The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
Tags: media relations tips, working with reporters
Posted in Media Training Tips | 5 Comments »
A reader named Sean Hughes ran into a familiar problem recently when dealing with a local reporter. He writes:
“We have a local metro reporter who loves to edit on-camera interviews to his (or his editors’) liking, typically avoiding our key messages in favor of sensationalist reactions from incited passers-by. To help fairly manage our participation in public discussion, is it okay to record the interview alongside the camera man, post the vid to our own site/blog, and link back to it in the comments section if the story gets skewed? This may not help in the media-trust department, but…I also think that the simple gesture during the interview may prompt a second-guess by the story crafter before they take a hard angle. Any experience with, or thoughts on, this potentially sensitive tactic?”
You’re handling this situation exactly right, Sean. I generally don’t advise subjects of news pieces to shoot raw video of their on-camera interviews for the reason you cite—it can lead to a reduction of trust between reporter and source. But in cases in which that trust has already been fractured, you have little to lose by putting the reporter on notice that their careless or motivated editing will be available to—and scrutinized by—the general public.
I’d offer a few additional thoughts:
First, try working the journalistic food chain before getting too aggressive. Try speaking to the reporter, then to the editor, then to the news director. Request to meet at their office. Share your concerns. As you might suspect, that doesn’t work a lot of the time—but it does occasionally, so it’s worth the effort.
Second, if you do decide to tape the interview, tell the reporters in advance. By doing so, it lets them know early in their story preparation that they should toe the line carefully. Plus, it prevents you from being accused of an “unprofessional” reverse media ambush.
Third, releasing the video on your own networks/blogs/websites is a great idea—but also contemplate a few additional possibilities. Consider sending it to your full mailing list with video embedded in the email. And if any traditional or online news organizations in your city criticize other competitive local media outlets, consider pitching them on a piece comparing the butchered story to your raw tape. (In Washington, D.C., for example, The Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly, regularly critiques The Washington Post.)
Good luck, Sean. Thanks for writing!
Do you have a media or presentation training question you’d like answered on the blog? Please email your question to Contact-at-MrMediaTraining.com.
Tags: media relations tips, media training tips, reader e-mails, working with reporters
Posted in Media Training Tips | 4 Comments »