Posts Tagged ‘working with reporters’
Anita Lopez, a Democratic mayoral candidate in Toledo, Ohio, likes to prepare carefully for her media interviews. She requires her staff to ask questions of reporters before any interview and to complete a form containing details about the story.
So far, I’m on board. That’s a rather typical media strategy, and it’s the kind of responsible due diligence that any smart candidate would employ. But The Toledo Blade suggests she’s going overboard:
“Among the information Ms. Lopez wants in advance is a list of the reporter’s questions; if anyone already has been interviewed; who else will be interviewed; what the other sources said to the reporter; if she can use visuals, and if the reporter is knowledgeable.”
In The Media Training Bible, I warn spokespersons dealing with hard news reporters to avoid asking for questions in advance—and Ms. Lopez shouldn’t insist on questions as a pre-condition for an interview. But the rest of her interview prep looks like the type of typical media relations policy that many businesses, organizations, and candidates employ as a standard operating procedure.
Although that may seem obstructionist, there are legitimate reasons for requesting information in advance. Knowing a reporter’s focus can help a candidate find key statistics or details that may not be top of mind, give the candidate warning that the reporter is on an unwarranted fishing expedition, and prevent them from committing the type of “gotcha” moment that sells newspapers but destroys reputations.
The Blade also knocks Lopez for using “bridging” statements. That’s a cheap shot. Those statements are used by virtually every experienced spokesperson in the country. Perhaps you don’t think politicians should use them—but singling her out for their use is journalistic hackery.
But the most ridiculous comment in the piece goes to Independent Councilman D. Michael Collins, who maintains that the truest response is “one that is extemporaneous.” Any experienced public figure should know the hazards of making it up while you go along: just ask Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, Mitt “47 percent” Romney, or Barack “cling to their guns and religion” Obama. According to his logic, no one should ever practice a speech again.
The bottom line is that it’s a good idea to prepare for interviews in advance. Perhaps it requires a defter touch than the one Ms. Lopez has been using. But many parts of The Blade’s piece feel like a highly selective singling out.
Of course, this is a bit less defensible.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: Anita Lopez, media training analysis, Toledo Blade, working with reporters
Posted in Media Training Analysis | 8 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 »
Attorney General Eric Holder is meeting with bureau chiefs from major news outlets this week for off-the-record sessions. They’re discussing the recent revelations that the Department of Justice seized phone records from Associated Press reporters and investigated Fox News reporter James Rosen for his reporting of sensitive leaked government information.
Not everybody is playing ball – as of this writing, The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Huffington Post, CNN and McClatchy will not attend as long as the session remains off the record.
This isn’t the first time the Obama Administration has been in the news for its controlling policies when it comes to dealing with the media. Just last summer, The New York Times reported on the practice of political press officers having final approval on quotes used in stories in exchange for access to top campaign officials. Of course, trying to control the media by restricting access is not exclusive to the Obama administration — but each successive recent Administration seems to be moving toward increasingly stricter controls.
As a former journalist, I find that these off-the-record meetings continue a dangerous trend regarding the media’s dealings with this Administration. This Department of Justice issue affects the news media itself and, as the point of a free press is to shine a light on government and its actions, should be discussed openly. Furthermore, from a communications standpoint, I’m not sure this serves to reassure the public that the Obama administration is committed to press freedoms.
MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosted a great debate on the topic this morning featuring top journalists and former politicians. The clip is a bit long at 22 minutes, but I suggest you take the time to watch it anyway. In it, Ron Fournier, the Editorial Director of the National Journal and former Washington Bureau Chief for the Associated Press voiced his concerns about the meeting, saying:
“Off the record in Washington means it’s a secret. It means even if… If you show me pictures of a senator with sheep, I can’t do anything with it… I’m not a priest. My job is to report what is happening. So why would I want to be a part of…meeting with a bunch of other journalists on a topic this important that is a secret. And the high irony here is that the Attorney General who’s been snooping on our news organizations wanted us to keep his secret.”
Outlets participating in the meeting cited the common practice of off-the-record conversations between journalists and sources. Politico’s Editor in Chief John Harris said in an email:
“As editor in chief, I routinely have off-the-record conversations with people who have questions or grievances about our coverage or our newsgathering practices. I feel anyone–whether an official or ordinary reader–should be able to have an unguarded conversation with someone in a position of accountability for a news organization when there is good reason.”
What lessons can communications professionals take from this?
1. Be wary of off-the-record agreements. Even if the agreement is honored, it may be reported that your organization insisted on an off-the-record situation, making it look like you have something to hide.
2. Off-the-record may affect your relationship with reporters. Many reporters resent this culture of off the record in straightforward situations. This agreement should be used sparingly.
3. Just because the Obama administration gets away with off-the-record demands to some degree doesn’t mean you will. Access to the President and top administration officials is necessary for political journalists to do their job. Access to your organization probably doesn’t rate with journalists quite as high.
Want more media analysis and training tips? Follow me on Twitter @PMRChristina!
Tags: Associated Press, cnn, Eric Holder, Fox News, James Rosen, John Harris, media analysis, Morning Joe, msnbc, New York Times, off the record, Politico, working with reporters
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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
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This is an excerpt from my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available in soft cover and all major eBook formats.
Most people don’t know how to use a telephone. Sure, they talk on the phone with their family, friends, and business contacts every day. But the telephone habits they use during those calls are radically different from the ones they need for print or radio interviews conducted by phone, known as “phoners.”
So forget everything you (think) you know and remember these eight tips the next time you have a phoner.
- 1. Get out of your office: Don’t sit at your desk, where you can become easily distracted by incoming emails, phone calls, and office visitors. Find an empty conference room with no distractions, and tape a “Do Not Disturb—Interview in Progress” sign on the door.
- 2. Bring your notes: It’s okay to have notes in front of you during phone interviews. Be careful not to “read” them to the reporter but to use them only as memory triggers. (See lesson 94 for more about the best way to prepare notes for an interview.)
- 3. Get a headset: Telephone headsets are terrific gadgets for phone interviews. They allow you to use both of your hands to gesture, which adds emphasis to your voice, and they free you from cradling a phone to your neck in case you need to jot down a few notes during your call.
- 4. Stand: When our trainees stand, they literally “think faster on their feet.” They also tend to project more authority, likely because pacing helps them use their nervous energy in a more productive manner.
- 5. Smile: Smile when appropriate. The reporter (and audience, for radio interviews) can hear your warmth radiating through the phone.
- 6. Prioritize audio quality: Speaker and cell phones have inferior sound quality and can be a barrier to easy communication. Plus, reporters may conclude, “He thinks he’s too important to pick up the damn phone?” It’s best to use a landline with a high-quality headset.
- 7. Click, clack, repeat: During print interviews, listen for the sound of typing on the other end—you’ll hear it when you say something that intrigues the reporter. That’s your cue to slow down and repeat what you’ve just said to make sure the reporter has time to capture every word. Also, don’t hesitate to check in with the reporter by asking whether your explanation made sense.
- 8. Now, what did I just say? If you think you may have mangled a key quote, you can ask the reporter to read it back to you (some reporters will oblige, others won’t). Reporters may not be willing to change something you said if you don’t like the way you said it—but they usually will if you said something factually inaccurate.
Case Study: Toronto Mayor’s Disastrous Phone Interview
In 2010, Toronto Mayor-Elect Rob Ford agreed to an interview with As It Happens, a national radio program that airs on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).
But when the reporter called at the scheduled time, Mr. Ford was busy coaching a youth football game. He proceeded with the interview anyway.
Unsurprisingly, he was unfocused, simultaneously yelling at children and telling the reporter about fiscal restraint. He interrupted the interview numerous times and made his points inarticulately, until finally admitting he was “being distracted.”
The interview ran unedited, creating an embarrassing—and self-inflicted—public relations disaster for the incoming mayor.
Tags: media training tips, working with reporters
Posted in Media Training Tips | 2 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 »
Reporters for the college newspaper The Daily Princetonian are no longer allowed to conduct interviews through email. Neither are reporters for The Stanford Daily or The Oracle, the University of South Florida’s paper.
What’s behind this seemingly urgent push for “no email interview” policies? To find out, writer Mark Lisheron wrote a thoughtful and well-researched piece for the April issue of the American Journalism Review. (Disclosure: I’m quoted in the article.)
Unsurprisingly, his investigation revealed deep passions on both sides of the debate. Supporters of the email ban argued their side thusly, as summarized by Lisheron:
“E-mail deprives the reporter of all of the sensory advantages of the other interview styles. Facial expressions, gestures, posture. The sound and the cadence of the voice. The emphasis on words or phrases. The pauses.
As fast and convenient as they are, e-mail interviews are never really conducted in real time. The timing of the response, the allowance for measured and edited replies create an artificiality readers recognize.”
The then-editor of The Daily Princetonian, Henry Rome, explained his decision to ban email interviews by writing:
“Interviews are meant to be genuine, spontaneous conversations that allow a reporter to gain a greater understanding of a source’s perspective. However, the use of the email interview — and its widespread presence in our News articles — has resulted in stories filled with stilted, manicured quotes that often hide any real meaning and make it extremely difficult for reporters to ask follow-up questions or build relationships with sources.”
On the other side of the debate are those who make the case for email interviews. One past president of the National Information Officers Association said this, as summarized by Lisheron:
“Reporters, he says, have no inherent right to a statement from him. He reserves the right to ask for questions in writing and provide answers in writing, usually through e-mail.
Departments like his are trying harder to control the message, not because they are deceptive and evil, but because relationships with the media have changed.”
And another public information officer told him that getting questions in writing is:
“…not only a way to form more complete and accurate answers, but to be better able to parry inquiries designed to elicit specific responses.”
So who’s right? Both sides have a point, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. Like anything else (say, PowerPoint slides) the problem is less with the tool itself than with the way that tool gets used. That said, far too many spokespersons rely on email. They think they’re maintaining control by only offering written statements—and sometimes they are—but too often, they’re unnecessarily undermining their relationships with the press.
You can read more about my view on this issue in my article called “Three Reasons to Interview by Phone Instead of Email.”
I hope you’ll read Mark’s excellent article in full. You can find it here. And please leave your thoughts on this topic in the comments section below.
Tags: American Journalism Review, Mark Lisheron, media analysis, media training analysis, working with reporters
Posted in Media Training Analysis | 5 Comments »
There’s an unfortunate reality of doing interviews. Sometimes, reporters just don’t know the story.
Take, for example, this interview. After running celebrity Mo Farah — a two-time Olympic gold medalist — won the New Orleans Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon, setting a course record, WDSU anchor LaTonya Norton interviewed him as if he was new to competitive running, asking him, “Haven’t you run before?”
What can you learn from this exchange? Clearly, Norton had no idea that Farah is a running world-record holder, even though a simple Google search would have clued her in. It would have been easy for Farah to embarrass the anchor and expose her lack of knowledge about the sport and him. However, Farah handled the disastrous interview gracefully and thus came out looking better for it.
Here’s what you should remember when dealing with reporters who just don’t get it:
- 1. Remember that patience with reporters in non-confrontational situations will always make you look better. Even though he’s a star in the running world, Mr. Farah resisted the urge to embarrass Ms. Norton. It was the kind thing to do. The race was on a weekend, and local news outlets are notoriously light-staffed on weekends. That doesn’t make the reporter’s ignorance of Mr. Farah acceptable, but it might partially explain it. At the end of the day, Farah appeared gracious and classy.
- 2. If you do find yourself in a challenging interview and the reporter doesn’t know the story, don’t be afraid to politely correct his or her wrong premises. Phrases like “That’s not necessarily the case” or “Actually, what we’re seeing is” will help you correct the reporter’s wrong assertions without making you look condescending or rude.
- 3. Unknowledgeable reporters can be your friends. Sure, it can be really frustrating to do an interview with a reporter who doesn’t know the story. However, that reporter is a blank slate and thus an opportunity. You can spend your time talking about only your most important messages without having to compete with his or her already existing points of view.
A grateful h/t to my terrific running coach, Chris Sloane, for sharing this interview.
Want more media tips? Follow me on Twitter @PMRChristina.
Tags: media relations tips, media training tips, Mo Farah, working with reporters
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