Posts Tagged ‘working with reporters’
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
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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
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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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