Part 2: A field guide to dealing with the media

Hard to satisfy

Hard to satisfy

No guide to the care and feeding of the media can prevent people from being clueless or having a tin ear, from being too narrowly focused to see the big picture, or from having a big ego or explosive temper that makes them easy prey for veteran reporters.

But if you’re relatively sensitive to the concerns of others and aren’t too caught up in yourself, the following tips will make it easier for you to convey your message effectively, advance your cause, minimize the damage when you screw up, and generally help you avoid a bumpy relationship with the media.

The following advice was distilled from over two decades of handling media relations for employers and clients, and has proven successful regardless of the scope of the media outlet. While the following doesn’t exhaust the subject, it will be helpful to people who don’t deal with the media on a regular basis.

1. If you’re contemplating a questionable action, ask yourself it you’d like to see it on page one of the newspaper. If the answer is “no,” don’t do it. If you do end-up in a embarrassing situation, admit your mistake and talk about the corrective action you’re going to take. Denial, stonewalling and (worst of all) lying just prolong the agony, and can turn a minor screw-up into a major scandal.

2. Before an interview, spend a few minutes thinking about the major points you want to make and focus on them during your time with the reporter. If the reporter wants to hear your life story, the reporter will ask.

3. If you don’t want to answer a question, simple say so. While it may irritate the reporter, this is a better approach than trying to dodge the question with an evasive answer that may convey misleading information, and cause you to claim you’ve been misquoted. If you have a good reason for not answering the question, say so.

4. Don’t deliberately mislead a reporter. You may fool a reporter once, but you’ll gain an enemy forever. If they learn the truth before the story is published or broadcast, you’ll have a real credibility problem.

5. If you’re not sure about the answer to a question that involves numbers, don’t guess. The same applies to questions outside your area of expertise. No reporter expects you to have all of the answers at your fingertips.

6. Don’t answer speculative (“What if…”) questions. This is the easiest way to be quoted out of context.

7. If you’re being interviewed by radio or television, try to get your main point across in colorful, descriptive terms–the infamous sound bite. Keep in mind that your air of decisiveness is more important than what you actually say. (Brian Williams is a good example of this.)

8. Don’t be surprised by any question you get, regardless of how provocative, dumb or naïve they may seem to you. Sometimes the reporter is genuinely ignorant or naïve, and sometimes he’s trying to trap you into revealing more than you want to say. Others will try to provoke you. Don’t take the bait; stay calm and collected.

9. Regardless of how casual the conversation may seem to you, always assume everything you say in the presence of a reporter will be quoted. En garde!

10. If you’re involved in a two-sided controversy, it’s a bad idea to stonewall the media. If the other side talks, the media will report their side of the story and not yours. Then you’ll be on the defensive and have to play catch-up.

11. When you end an interview, encourage the reporter to call back if he or she is uncertain about anything, or has additional questions. If you need to get information you couldn’t provide during the interview, do it as quickly as possible.

12. If the story is factually correct but you don’t like its slant or the reporter’s interpretation, keep it to yourself. Success is sweeter when your doubters have to admit they were wrong.

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3 Responses to Part 2: A field guide to dealing with the media

  1. Don Baumgart says:

    All good advice, George. I would add “check your voice mail often and return media calls at once.” I once called a county official on a Monday for a comment, adding “I’m on deadline.” He returned the call Friday afternoon. I’m surprised how many people up here just don’t get it when it comes to how the media works.

    • I could have included 50 tips (the next 38 cost money), but your point is a good one.

      The problem isn’t unique to this area. People who have never worked in media seem to think deadlines are a rough approximation of when the work has to be done. That may be the case in other businesses, but not the media. Reporters and editors get fired if they miss enough deadlines.

  2. stevefrisch says:

    All very good points but I would add one.

    Never assume that a reporter knows anything about the issue they are reporting on; it is up to you to do some quick research on the reporter before you call them back.

    I run into this one often. With the few rare exception of experienced reporters who have a specialized ‘beat’, like real estate, environmental issues, or the economy, most reporters are young, inexperienced in the field they are reporting on, and under pressure to deliver on a short deadline, thus have little time to do background research.

    Last week I talked to a reporter covering a California water story and I said, “Two thirds of all developed water in California comes from north of Sacramento and two thirds of everyone using that water lives south of Sacramento.” They replied, “That can’t be true, water comes from rain.”

    The reporter had no idea about how the system of water delivery works in California, works for a major media outlet doing a story on the impact of the drought on agriculture in the Central Valley, and had not even looked at the basic plumbing diagram of the state.

    I am a big believer in the fourth estate, and favor journalists as the voice of a free people, but when it comes down to brass tacks, don’t assume they know anything. They called you because someone said you were an expert in some field or are directly involved in the story. Be prepared to quickly suss out what they know and do a quick primer on the basics.

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