Posts Tagged ‘working with reporters’
Editor’s Note: Since August 2010, I’ve written more than 1,000 posts. Some of the most popular posts have gotten buried over time, so I occasionally unbury especially useful older posts to share with readers who missed them the first time. This article was originally published on December 27, 2010.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen my regular advice to do almost every media interview you’re offered. But there are times when turning down an interview makes the most sense, and this article will discuss the times when saying “no” is your best move.
Below, you’ll find a list of seven times to turn down an interview.
The original list comes from the IABC (The International Association of Business Communicators). Although it’s a solid list, the tips are overly-generalized, so I’ve added my own commentary to each of the seven suggestions to help make them more complete.
1. Employees Have Not Yet Been Notified About a Specific Issue
As a general piece of advice, this is fine. But if a reporter is about to run a story with or without your input – and if you lack the logistical ability to inform your employees directly before it runs – it might make sense to participate in the story to ensure you provide the necessary context. Plus, what is the “specific issue” at play here? Announcing a new product before all employees have been notified (e.g. the iPad) might be strategically sound, while announcing employee layoffs through the press would not be.
2. Employee, Client or Patient Privacy Is Never Breached For Any Reason
Client confidentiality might be waived, for example, if you’re subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit or before Congress, especially if no confidentiality agreement was signed between the parties.
3. An Emergency Has Occurred; Next-of-Kin Have Not Been Notified
I agree you should not be the first party to announce any deaths before next-of-kin has been notified, but what happens if the media has already announced the names? Do you confirm them then, or continue to wait hours – or days – before next-of-kin has been notified? These cases aren’t always cut and dried, and sometimes confirming the names is the more humane choice.
4. Sensitive Competitive Information Would Be Divulged
In a reputational crisis, there are times you might lose more by NOT divulging a proprietary piece of information. As with any crisis, you have to analyze all possibilities, including divulging competitive information.
5. Security Legislation Would Be Breached
Whistleblowers aside, this is probably good advice. I assume this refers to laws already passed, not pending legislation.
6. Union Negotiations are Underway; An Information Blackout is in Effect
If both sides are honoring the agreement, this is good advice. But what about when one party breaks the agreement and is killing you in the press? You should talk to the media – if not to offer specifics, at least to remind the public that you’ve agreed to an information blackout, that you’re not going to talk for that reason, but that there’s more to the story than they’re hearing from the other side.
7. Legal Counsel Has Advised Against Communications
If there’s one thing on this list that makes me bristle, it’s this one. First, even if counsel has advised against “communications,” you can still communicate. You can almost always offer a generic statement such as, “We can’t offer specifics in this case since it’s in litigation, but I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to this story, and we’re confident that our side will come out in court.”
Second, legal counsel often advises against communications as a kneejerk reaction, even when communicating makes the most sense. Executives would be wise to consult their attorneys and their communications professionals prior to making such decisions. Sometimes the reputational damage caused by your silence is greater than the financial damage of future lawsuits.
Editor’s Note: A grateful hat tip to a good marketing blog called IMC Intuition by Beth Ryan, on which I originally saw this list.
Tags: media relations tips, media training tips, PR, Public Relations, working with reporters
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Spokespersons may encounter a few additional media formats. Be sure to familiarize yourself with these five possibilities:
1. Editorial-Board Meetings
Many newspapers have editorial boards, which are composed of a small group of editors who write the editorials, or “official viewpoints,” that appear in each morning’s paper. The editors who pen them are typically not news reporters (whose reporting is supposed to avoid expressing personal viewpoints). Editorials are different than “op-eds,” which are usually written by members of the community.
Meetings with editorial boards are opportunities to influence the editors to adopt your viewpoint. Treat these meetings the same way you would a news interview: anything you say can be quoted, and some editorial board meetings may be audio- and/or videotaped. Some editors ask aggressive questions, especially of spokespersons who represent a controversial brand or idea, so prepare thoroughly for your meeting.
2. Deskside Briefings
Deskside briefings are similar to meetings with editorial boards, but are usually one-on-one exchanges with an individual journalist at his or her office (hence the name “deskside”) rather than with larger groups. The casual and often friendly nature of deskside briefings can lead spokespersons to stray off their messages, so remember to treat everything you say as a quotable comment.
3. Walk and Talks
Have you ever seen a television interviewer conduct an interview while walking down a street or hallway with the interviewee? Some reporters are fond of conducting interviews as “walk and talks,” since they tend to relax the person being interviewed and are more visually interesting than a typical in-studio interview.
This can be a difficult format, since you have to focus on where you’re walking in addition to relaying your message. Walk slowly—and if you find yourself getting distracted, stop walking for a moment and turn toward the interviewer while making a key point.
Some talk shows, including daytime chat programs, ask guests to do a demonstration, or “demo.” Chefs show viewers how to cook lasagna, home decorators demonstrate how to inexpensively design a living room, and physicians teach people how to perform a self-examination.
Delivering a demo in just a few short minutes can be a major challenge. Do several on-camera practice rounds in advance to get your timing and delivery down, and be prepared to handle any unexpected moments that occur.
5. Comedy Shows
One thing I’ve learned through the years is that almost everyone thinks they’re funny. So when they appear on a late-night talk show such as The Tonight Show or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, their inclination is to try to crack a joke or two. It’s usually a bad idea.
Unless you’re a comedian, it’s usually best to avoid competing for punch lines. Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, even tells his guests beforehand to play it straight. Let the comedian do the jokes—comedy isn’t as easy as it looks. Just bring your good humor, a warm smile, and a willingness to go along with the joke.
Tags: media training tips, working with reporters
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I recently received this email from the communications director for a major league sports team:
“What is your opinion on a speaker (in our case it’s usually the head coach after games) addressing questions by naming each reporter before the answer or finding a spot within the answer to name the questioner? I hear writers talk about it, how it shows the speaker cares about the media or is making an effort to connect with them more than just spewing a quick answer. Do you think a speaker receives better coverage when naming the reporter in his answer than just to answer the question? I’m torn on it because:
1. My head coach will have to learn each reporter’s name (meaning the non-beat writers), and the reporters who cover us change quite often.
2. It distracts from the answer sometimes. Fans might think, “As a viewer, do I really care that Joe from the local newspaper asked the question? I’m a fan of the team, he should address me too.”
I’ve always been conflicted about this topic for the reasons the emailer stated. In The Media Training Bible, I wrote that:
“Many media trainers teach their trainees to call reporters by their names, arguing that doing so helps forge a warm connection with the interviewer. Perhaps that’s true. But it comes at too high of a price. When you call reporters by name, it makes it clear to the audience that you’re speaking to the reporter, not with them.”
Although I believe that advice is generally sound, does it always apply?
It definitely applies to taped sound bite interviews, in which the person conducting the interview may be a behind-the-scenes producer. If you say that person’s name during the interview, the news station will probably be forced to edit it out—or drop that quote altogether.
But does it apply to a live press conference?
On one hand, naming reporters might help make the reporter feel valued. Reporters may even want to edit their name into the piece to show that they’re the one who asked the question (and let’s face it—hearing their name may also satisfy their ego).
But on the other hand, if the head coach doesn’t know a few people, it will become abundantly clear to everyone watching that they don’t know the reporter. In addition, reporters from competitive outlets may not want to use otherwise great quotes that name their competitors. Plus, as the emailer suggested, it may interfere with the connection the coach should be making with the viewers and fans outside of the room.
The emailer and I would both like to learn from you on this one. Please select an option from the poll above—and leave your more complete thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: media relations tips, media training tips, press conference, working with reporters
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The season finale of HBO’s Veep, which aired earlier this month, featured a hilarious moment that made me wonder what I would do in the same situation.
If you’re not familiar with the program, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, the nation’s first female vice president. The show revolves around Ms. Meyer and her rather colorful staff.
The moment occurred just after the vice president concludes an in-person interview with an obnoxious Boston newspaper reporter. After the reporter walks away, Meyer and her staff begin discussing a couple of their small-money campaign donors and insulting their thriftiness. They even give their low-money donors a derogatory name—GUMMIs—an acronym for “Give us more money, idiots.”
Just as they finish their conversation, they realize that the Boston reporter accidentally left his phone behind, on which he had been recording his interview with the vice president (it was still recording). The reporter, who realizes his mistake, is on his way back to the office to collect his phone.
The staff quickly realizes how much trouble the campaign will be in if the recording of their conversation gets out—small-money donors will pull their contributions, and the campaign will be seen as elitist. They weigh their options: We should destroy the phone with a lamp! We should say it accidentally fell into the toilet!
The reporter enters the office and collects his phone before they can execute their plan (and, spoiler alert, the “GUMMIs” conversation does cause unflattering headlines).
That made me wonder: What would I do in that situation? The choices boil down to these three:
1. Do nothing and hope the reporter doesn’t use that material
This is the option Meyer’s staff took—and it didn’t pay off.
2. Destroy the evidence
This would kill the negative story about the GUMMIs—but it might lead to even more damaging headlines about destroying a reporter’s phone and speculation about what Ms. Meyer said on the destroyed tape. (The phone was password protected, so simply deleting the file wasn’t an option.)
3. Negotiate with the reporter
This is the strategy I would have chosen. When the reporter came back for his phone, I would have asked him to consider all of the material included on the tape after he left the room “off the record.” The reporter would have had no obligation to honor my request—such requests are typically made prior to the interview and agreed upon in advance by both parties—but in this case, the material was gathered without the consent of the taped party (which might even constitute an illegal recording in some states). His leaving the tape recorder behind might have even been an intentional trick, although the show didn’t address that question.
If the conversation with the reporter doesn’t go well, there could be an either implicit or explicit threat regarding future access—publish that material, and you’ll never speak with the vice president again. (That’s the “stick” approach; the “carrot” approach of offering increased access could also work.)
If you have any additional thoughts, please leave them in the comments section below.
Tags: crisis communications, HBO, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, media relations tips, PR, Public Relations, Selina Meyer, Veep, 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.
Although this section has dealt exclusively with crisis communications, it’s important to note that not all bad press results from a crisis. Sometimes, a reporter gets a key fact wrong, a columnist takes an unfavorable view of your political stance, or an arts critic disapproves of your museum’s new exhibit.
Lessons 91 and 92 will help you respond to negative media coverage that doesn’t result from a full-fledged crisis but that has the potential to negatively affect your brand. This lesson focuses on how to respond to bad press before the story runs.
You can’t always respond to stories before publication, since some run without reporters contacting you in advance. But reporters will often ask for your perspective before the story runs, and their questions may make it clear to you that they’ve drawn incorrect impressions. If you think you’re about to be the recipient of bad press, consider these five actions.
1. Detail the errors
Make a list of the reporter’s errors and explain why the story is wrong. Provide the reporter with the accurate information and cite your sources.
2. Ask to meet with the reporter
Little is more disarming than a spokesperson who asks to meet in person. It sends a message that you have nothing to hide and may make reporters reconsider their perspectives.
3. Take it up a notch
If you’re getting nowhere with the reporter, speak with his or her boss. That person bears greater responsibility for running accurate stories.
4. Get your lawyers involved
You may be able to get a story delayed, revised, or killed if you can demonstrate to the news organization that it is factually incorrect and could lead to a costly lawsuit.
5. Beat the press
In extreme cases, you might consider releasing your story before the reporter can. That may mean offering the story to a competing (and fairer) journalist or releasing it through your own social media channels. By beating the journalist to the story, you’ll be able to get your version of events out first and help control the narrative. But beware: If you pursue this strategy, the reporter may punish you in future coverage.
Tread carefully when considering lawsuits against news organizations, since legal cases often attract more headlines and keep damaging information in the headlines that much longer.
Can You Sue a News Organization for an Incorrect Story?
If you’re the target of an inaccurate news story, you may be able to sue the offending news organization. The information below comes from Erik M. Pelton & Associates, a law firm specializing in intellectual property and social media issues.
Libel and slander are legal terms for injuring another party by making harmful misstatements. Libel relates to statements made in print or online; slander applies to oral statements. Both are difficult to establish in the U.S., where the person suing has the burden of proof. Claims are easier to prove in many other countries, since the person accused of libel or slander has to prove that the disputed statement is true.
In order win a lawsuit in the U.S., the statement must have been negligently made and resulted in harm to the person defamed. Public figures have an even higher threshold to meet, and must show the person making the statement knew it to be false or had a reckless disregard for the truth.
To avoid being sued yourself, be sure that any negative statements you make about a specific individual or business are accurate—or are clearly identified as your opinion.
Click here for more information about The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
Tags: media training tips, working with reporters
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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?”
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!
Do you have a question about public speaking or dealing with the media that you’d like answered on the blog? Please send it to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.
Tags: media relations tips, PR, Public Relations, working with reporters
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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:
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.”
“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.”
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.
Tags: media relations tips, PR, Public Relations, working with reporters
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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.?
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!
Tags: media relations tips, PR, Public Relations, Question of the Week, working with reporters
Posted in Question of the Week | 6 Comments »