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.