Posts Tagged ‘working with reporters’
This post was written by Christina Mozaffari, vice president of Phillips Media Relations and a former NBC News producer.
I’ve always bristled at the “blame the media” public relations strategy.
Plenty of politicians and public figures have used the strategy, sometimes with great success (here’s President Obama, Bill Cosby, and Chris Christie). It’s also probably fair to say my dislike for the strategy is largely due to my own bias as a former reporter.
That said, Frank Bruni’s column in The New York Times last weekend addressing the successes and failures in political reporting—including so-called “gotcha” questions—was spot-on. In it, he admitted the media have some significant faults in covering politics, but that politicians still have a lot of responsibility for the coverage they receive. His last line perfectly summed up the issue:
“…when candidates bemoan and disparage the media’s omnipresence and hypervigilance… remember this, too: When they’re harping about our shortcomings, they’re first and foremost trying to cover up their own.”
As an example, Wisconsin governor and potential presidential candidate Scott Walker recently criticized the media after punting on fairly easy and unsurprising questions surrounding his beliefs on evolution and President Obama’s religion. While Walker’s strategy may help him in the primaries with conservatives who distrust the mainstream media, it’s not enough to work in a general election in which you have to win voters in the middle. The actual questions didn’t get Walker into trouble; rather, it was his refusal to answer them in a straightforward manner.
The media are far from perfect. There are certainly many mainstream outlets with clear biases on both sides. However, when the coverage goes wrong, more often than not, the blame lies with the public figure.
So, when faced with biased reporters, what should you do? These rules of thumb may not apply to the most aggressive cases, but tend to serve most spokesperson well.
- 1. Know your “enemy.” It’s your responsibility to know, as best you can, the reporter’s work and point of view. All it typically takes is a quick Google search and a few minutes to read the reporter’s previous work. If you know what you’re walking into, you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
- 2. Be the bigger person. It’s your job to stay cool. Let your audience decide on the bias of the reporter, particularly if it’s a live audience and the audience can see the full exchange. If the audience believes you’re being bullied and you manage to handle the reporter’s biased questions with openness and class, you will come off looking better.
- 3. Ask yourself if you really need to do this interview. In general, participating in interviews when you know a story is going to be written about you or your organization is smart. Having your voice in a story, even if it’s an aggressive story, keeps you present in your own coverage and helps to avoid that damaging line, “We reached out to Organization X and they had no comment.” That said, if you truly believe you have no chance at getting fair treatment in an interview, there’s no rule that says you have to do it.
What do you think? Is blaming the media a lame cover-up or smart strategy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: Election 2016, Frank Bruni, media analysis, media relations, PR, Public Relations, Scott Walker, working with reporters
Posted in Media Relations | 1 Comment »
A reader from South Africa recently asked:
“I wish to check with you on the ethics of publishing a media response to more than the persons that enquired. This is in a case of apparent collusion between members of the political opposition and the media.”
My answer is yes, absolutely. Based on your question, I’d say that “ethics” aren’t a factor here. If you were refusing to speak to any reporters, particularly about matters that concern the public interest, you might be entering into an unethical situation—but speaking to more reporters is different.
That said, I still wouldn’t go down that path, at least not as a first step.
The goal of media relations is to try to establish positive (or at least not negative) relationships with reporters. So the first question I’d ask you is whether you’ve done everything in your power to build a better relationship with the news organization? For example, have you taken these seven steps? Or, if you’re being falsely accused of something you haven’t done, have you considered these three options?
If you have—and you have strong reason to believe that the news organization is “colluding” with the political opposition—then yes, it is an acceptable practice to issue a response to numerous news outlets simultaneously and/or through your own websites and social media sites.
If the news organization complains, you can explain your rationale for circumventing them. Doing so may give you another opportunity to heal your relationship with them (you can offer to respond to their answers directly in the future in return for fairer coverage). Notice that I said “fairer” coverage, not “favorable” coverage. You still may not like all of the stories published by the media outlet—a reporter’s job isn’t to make you happy—but if their reporting is reasonably accurate, it may represent a meaningful improvement upon your current situation.
Of course, circumventing an individual reporter by responding to everyone at once could make your current relationship with that journalist even worse, which can lead to more hostile coverage against you. That’s why you should think carefully about whether you’ve truly done everything you can to improve your relationship with them.
Finally, you might also approach a competing news organization or media ombudsman-type to pitch the idea of running a story about their competitor’s inaccurate reporting. Some news organizations relish the idea of fact checking a competitor; here in the U.S., for example, it’s common to see Fox News questioning reporting on MSNBC, and vice versa.
Thanks for your email, and good luck in managing this situation!
Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on the blog? Please send an email to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.
Tags: media relations, media relations tips, PR, Public Relations, working with reporters
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Editor’s note: Three years ago, I published a post containing 11 things that journalists find newsworthy. Since then, many readers have added their thoughts to mine—so today, this list becomes the 16 things reporters consider newsworthy.
If you’ve ever pitched a story idea to a reporter by phone, you know how hard it can be to succeed.
When reporters say “no,” the person pitching them on the other end of the phone often protests, “But this issue is so important!” They’re probably right. But there’s a big difference between what you consider important and what the reporter considers newsworthy.
As an example, more than 35 million people are living with HIV worldwide. That’s an important story. But in the eyes of reporters, that story will be no more important tomorrow than it is today—unless something happens related to HIV today. If physicians discover a new vaccine or a drug company pledges to provide free drugs to one million HIV patients in Africa, the “important” issue will suddenly become “newsworthy.”
As a spokesperson, it’s important for you to understand what reporters consider newsworthy. You can often propel your story from important to newsworthy just by highlighting a different angle.
So take out that story you’re about to pitch and see which of the following 16 elements it has (hopefully it has several). If you’re not prioritizing those elements enough, turn them into your lead!
1. Conflict: Reporters are professional storytellers, and good stories contain conflict. If you disagree with a competitor’s approach, for example, you’re more likely to receive coverage than if you agree.
2. Local: Most news organizations cover a specific geographic range. A newspaper in Iowa may report on a local charity event, but is unlikely to report on a new condo development in Florida (unless a well-known Iowa entrepreneur is the development’s lead investor).
3. Incident: Anything that goes wrong has the potential to become newsworthy, such as an industrial explosion, a car crash, or a school shooting.
4. Extremes or superlatives: Reporters love extremes or superlatives: the first, the last, the best, the worst, the biggest, the smallest. If your story contains one, highlighting it will usually make it more newsworthy.
5. New: It’s no coincidence that the word “news” contains the word “new.” News stories have to answer the question, “why now?” Stories that don’t are considered “old news”—or worse, “no news”—and usually receive little coverage.
6. Clickable: This is a new category, spawned by the popularity of news and entertainment websites such as BuzzFeed and Upworthy. Because they depend upon clicks to draw readers, and thus advertisers, they’re more likely to run your story if it helps them attract a large audience. Think in terms of provocative, highly emotional, and downright weird stories, images, and videos.
7. Timely and Relevant: Timely stories, often about an upcoming event, are often considered newsworthy, as are stories relevant to the news organization’s specialty. An upcoming hearing at your local statehouse about a topic that affects the state’s senior citizens, for example, is a good example—and the story will be of greater interest to a news organization that covers local politics than one that doesn’t.
8. News You Can Use: Reader Fletcher Doyle, a former journalist, recommended this category. He writes: “Tell me something that will help my readers, and tell me how it will help them.” For example, if a local Department of Motor Vehicles introduces a new auto registration process that helps drivers avoid standing in line for two hours, local outlets might be interested in the story.
9. Scandal: The Congressman who hides money in his freezer, the hedge fund manager who rips off his clients, and the music mogul who murders his companion are almost guaranteed to be deemed newsworthy.
10. David vs. Goliath: In many stories, there is a “big guy” and a “little guy.” Since the media often view their role as being the protector of the exploited, the little guy usually receives more sympathetic coverage.
11. Incompetence: The corporate executive, politician, or celebrity who can’t seem to get it right will almost always draw the critical eye of the press.
12. Surprising: Stories with an unexpected hook are candy to reporters. If your study discovers that fried foods have previously undiscovered health benefits, you can bet the media will lavish your work with coverage. That story, incidentally, would also make me very happy.
13. Hypocrisy: Say you’re an anti-gay rights politician who gets caught with a gay lover. Or the president of an animal shelter who’s caught abusing animals. There are few stories as delicious to reporters as powerful people betraying their own publicly-stated positions—and they’re almost guaranteed to remain in the headlines for several days or weeks.
14. Emotion: Reader William Runge added a category he called “heartstrings.” Juliet C. agreed, pointing out that many stories are neither surprising nor new—but that by digging deeper, you can often uncover a story worth telling. For example, imagine you released a new product two years ago. It’s no longer “news”—but if you’ve just learned of someone using the product in an unexpected, potentially life-altering way (e.g. a technology product that unexpectedly helped a hearing impaired child hear for the first time), reporters will eagerly share the news.
15. Milestones: Reader Susan Pepperdine suggested this category, pointing out that “the seven billionth baby on Earth” was newsworthy, but “the baby born just before seven billion and the next one after were not newsworthy.” Some anniversaries are inconsequential—few journalists care that your business just celebrated its 35th anniversary—but others, such as 9/11, will be noteworthy for decades to come.
16. Narrative Extenders: This new category is most often seen in politics. For example, a small political gaffe might not normally receive much attention—unless it’s committed by someone with a long history of committing gaffes. Or perhaps a politician with a bullying streak gives a sarcastic answer to a constituent, confirming the “bully” narrative the media had already established about that person.
What have I missed? Please add your thoughts to the comments section below.
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Tags: media pitches, media relations, media relations tips, PR, Public Relations, working with reporters
Posted in Media Relations | 3 Comments »
Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, made some controversial comments about Muslims during one of his recent programs, during which he had a well-publicized debate with one of his guests, actor Ben Affleck.
A few days later, Maher was scheduled to give an interview to a reporter from Salon about a different topic—his “Flip a District” campaign—but the writer understandably wanted to ask Maher about his “spat” with Affleck. Maher made clear he didn’t want to talk about that; here are three excerpts from the interview:
“Yeah, let’s leave that for a while. I’ve said enough about that.”
“You know, I don’t want to talk about this. You just said we’re not going to talk about this and now we’re talking about it.”
“I’ll tell you something interesting — and then I am going to get off the subject because we’re here to talk about “Flip a District,” was my understanding.”
Maher’s responses made me think about a question we hear a lot during our media training sessions: What should I do if I’m asked a question about a topic I wasn’t originally booked to speak about? Do I have to answer it, or can I insist on speaking only about the topic we agreed to discuss in advance?
In that situation, you have a few options:
1. Answer The Question
This is often the best option, particularly if the question is one that the audience would expect you to be able to answer. Deflecting a straightforward question that deserves a straightforward response often plays like this infamous 2008 interview, in which Sarah Palin refused to name the newspapers she reads.
2. Give a Short Response, Then Transition Away From It
Maher used this approach, reminding the reporter that he had agreed to speak about a specific topic and insisting that they keep to the ground rules. He provided a short answer to the questions about his controversial comments, then moved away from them.
This approach can work for more experienced spokespersons—Maher used it well—but it requires a deft touch to avoid being portrayed as evasive. But there’s one problem with this approach: By giving even a short response about his controversial comments, Maher allowed Salon to run the exact headline he didn’t want: “EXCLUSIVE: Bill Maher on Islam spat with Ben Affleck: ‘We’re liberals! We’re not crazy tea-baggers.’”
3. Confront The Reporter
In a 2012 Republican primary debate, Newt Gingrich was asked about accusations that he had asked his second wife for an open marriage. He deemed the question out of bounds—we’re here to talk about serious issues, and you’re asking me about a personal relationship—and went on the offensive.
Gingrich used this approach brilliantly, but he also deployed it in front of a supportive audience that shared his dislike of the media. Generally speaking, this is a high-wire act that few people pull off well.
4. Refuse to Answer The Question
Here’s where things get really tricky: Let’s say you agreed with a reporter in advance that the interview would be limited to a specific topic. When the interview begins, the journalist breaks his or her promise. Cameras are roiling. Do you refuse to answer it, perhaps reminding the reporter of your agreement, even if doing so risks making you look evasive to the audience?
The answer is “it depends”—on the context, the topic, the format, and the spokesperson. This option is risky, and in my experience, only a small percentage of spokespersons have the media savvy and personal qualities to pull this off well. But assuming you do refuse to accept the question, keep these two things in mind:
First, make sure your tone doesn’t convey even a whiff of defensiveness.
Second, you can refuse to answer the question with a response like one of these:
“I’m not here to discuss that topic today. I want the focus to be squarely on our new product, and I’m aware that if I comment on anything but that, the headlines won’t be about the product. So let’s get back to that…”
“You know, Janet, I’m surprised you would ask me that. Before we began this interview, we agreed that you would ask me only about this project, and now you’ve broken that promise. I’m happy to do this interview with you if we focus it on this project, which is so important to so many people. But if you insist on breaking your commitment, you’ll leave me little choice but to end this interview.”
The second option is similar to “confront the reporter” approach, but with one key difference—whereas Gingrich still proceeded to answer the question, the spokesperson in this example didn’t.
This post focused on what you can do during the interview itself. But you can also help reduce the need for saying “I’m not here to talk about that topic” by negotiating the ground rules before the interview, and you can register a complaint after the interview (and disclose that breach to your audiences through your blog and social media feeds) if the reporter breaks them.
Tags: advanced media training technique, advanced media training tips, media relations tips, working with reporters
Posted in Media Training Tips | 1 Comment »
I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before.
This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.
Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.
Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.
The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.
The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.
The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.
The “Aha!” Moment
When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.
I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.
That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.
Tags: media relations tips, media training, Public Relations, working with reporters
Posted in Media Training Tips | 4 Comments »
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
Posted in Media Training Tips | 1 Comment »
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
Posted in Media Relations | 7 Comments »