10 Terrific Tips for Talking to Reporters
How to shine in media spotlight…
Have you ever been caught off guard at work by an unexpected media inquiry?
The emergency request from your organization’s press office sounds something like this:
- We have a major media inquiry from The New York Times [insert other media] about the [insert technical or legal issue] and we need you to speak to the reporter ASAP…
Being a diligent team player you agree without hesitation, knowing full well how closely the press shop works with executive leadership. Thus, you have little choice but to comply, lest you risk potential blowback from your boss and the C-suite.
Another surprising situation involves a reporter seeking you out directly via phone, email or your personal social media account. You have no idea how they obtained your contact information. Still, you’re now on the hook to reply.
Regardless of whether you’ve had such an experience, it’s not always easy talking to reporters on the fly. Thus, some basic rules are helpful for those who are not PR pros.
Below are ten tips for engaging the so-called “media beast” on short notice.
While these general rules and guidelines are neither exhaustive nor all encompassing, they will help steer you in the right direction. The tips are applicable to print media, digital media, social media and broadcast media.
1. Proceed with Caution
First and foremost, you should assume that every contact you have with a journalist is “on the record” for name attribution unless otherwise indicated.
Follow the golden rule: if in doubt, leave it out.
Assume that anything you say may end up as the lead story with your name and quotes included. Thus, take your time when talking to reporters. Don’t ever wing it or let down your guard. Instead, remain vigilant.
Recall that some reporters are seeking a predetermined answer.
In a worst case scenario, aggressive journalists will hammer away at you with loaded or biased questions. The point is to wear you down until the answer they seek is provided. Don’t fall prey to this trap. Sometimes all it takes is one slip of the tongue for your words to be taken out of context and used against you.
Further, most reporters are not your friends — unless you happen to have a long-term preexisting personal/professional relationship. Although some journalists can come across as friendly or soft spoken, don’t be fooled into unilaterally disarming. Always think before you speak.
Avoid getting suckered into giving reporters only the answers they want, which might reflect negatively on you and your organization.
Even if you think a media exchange went well, the reporter may hone in on one instance where you misspoke and then blow it out of context in the story.
Beware of random requests from journalists and always proceed with caution. It’s better to be safe than sorry, especially when it’s your reputation on the line.
2. Know the Rules of Engagement
If you prefer to speak “off the record” or “on background” you must tell the reporter at the start of the conversation. You never want to mistakenly divulge sensitive information with your name and title attached to it.
Make sure you and the reporter both understand and agree upon the rules of engagement. This will help avoid any misunderstandings or discrepancies after the story is published and posted online.
It’s imperative to fully comprehend the main types of attribution, or lack thereof.
3. Speaking On-the-Record
This means that what you say to a journalist can be directly attributed to you by name, title and organization. First, make sure to obtain appropriate authorization from the press shop and your boss before speaking on-the-record, or you might get chewed out later.
Think of it this way to remain cautious: anything you tell a reporter can be used against you and your organization. In fact, most people who speak to reporters for official name attribution are company spokespersons and senior executive leaders.
Here’s an example of on-the-record attribution: “According to John Doe, senior policy analyst of the XYZ corporation…”
4. Speaking Off-the-Record
This means that what you tell a reporter can’t be attributed to you — period. The reporter is bound by professional journalism ethics and standards to refrain from quoting you or otherwise attributing any information to you.
Most professional journalists take attribution seriously. Some reporters have even gone to jail rather than revealing their sources to a court regarding national security and intelligence information, for example.
If you speak off-the-record then the reporter must confirm the information through other sources and attribute it to them — not you — or use generic language instead.
Some people speak off-the-record to get negative information out anonymously, such as whistleblowers with legitimate complaints about unlawful activity. Others may do so because of internal office politics and infighting on policy or legal issues.
Lastly, some people may speak off-the-record to “float a trial balloon” — meaning to get confidential information in major media to gauge the reaction of the press and public before any official announcements are made.
Here’s an example of off-the-record attribution: “Multiple sources who asked for anonymity revealed the following…”
5. Speaking on Background
This means that what you say to a reporter can be attributed to you, but not by name. You select the term of generic attribution up front. Simply tell the reporter at the outset:
I’m speaking “on background” and want to make sure I’m not quoted directly by name or organization.
The bottom line is that you always know and agree to specific attribution with which you feel comfortable…before revealing any information to the media.
To reiterate: reporters operate on the assumption that everything you say is “on-the-record” for name attribution, unless otherwise indicated.
Some journalists might be courteous and ask, “May I quote you on that?” or, “This is on-the-record, right?” Others won’t bother. Therefore, make sure to establish the ground rules at the start of the conversation.
If a reporter asks why you can’t be quoted by name, simply explain you are not authorized to speak on-the-record, or the information you are conveying is sensitive in nature.
6. Be Responsive
Always respond to media requests as soon as possible, whether it’s a voicemail, email, text or social media query — even if you have no substantive information for the reporter or cannot comment immediately.
Keep in mind that notifying the media quickly that you’ve received and are processing their request can avoid a subsequent negative statement in a story, such as:
- “XYZ company failed to respond,” or “could not be reached for comment.”
You don’t want to risk negative or incorrect information being reported, for which your organization will then have to seek a correction or clarification later (after the damage is done, which is usually too late).
Being responsive is especially important in today’s frenetic 24/7 breaking news cycle. Some reporters may shoot first and ask questions later to get a story out first and beat the fierce competition.
Also, if you don’t know an answer to a question then don’t manufacture one on the spot. Rather, tell the reporter you or the press shop will respond soonest. Then make sure to double check a potential answer with internal policy experts and/or legal counsel.
You can also coordinate a response through your internal press office, which is standard operating procedure in many organizations.
It’s always better to provide an accurate response than an instant response which is wrong. If you can’t fully respond immediately then ask for a reporter’s deadline and meet it.
7. Tell the truth
It should go without saying that lying to journalists is unethical and should be avoided at all costs.
Lying to the media will usually backfire on you because the reporter will obtain the correct information from other sources anyway. Moreover, lying or misrepresenting the facts means risking the loss of your credibility, that of your organization and its brand.
And once trust is lost with the media, it’s extremely difficult — if not impossible — to regain. Therefore, when it comes to lying, just don’t do it!
Even telling reporters small “white lies” or not being completely candid can badly damage public trust, hurt consumer confidence and taint the brand image.
8. Don’t Comment on Everything
Having sufficient time to prepare for a media interview is an ideal situation but not always possible. Reporters can contact you at the worst possible times, including after regular business hours and on weekends.
It’s the job of journalists to obtain a comment or information from you on their deadline — not necessarily at your convenience.
Thus, no matter how persistent or pesky the reporter, no matter how many times they contact you, do not initially offer information on everything they ask about (particularly with no advance notice). Rather, coordinate with your press shop, legal and policy experts first.
Always remain calm, cool and collected with the media. Don’t let a reporter pressure you into giving up too much information before you’re actually ready to provide it.
- Check out the following article regarding formal media interview requests, in which you have sufficient advance time to prepare…
9. Confidentiality Counts
If applicable, explain legal and statutory confidentiality provisions to journalists, including relevant rules and regulations regarding sensitive information for which you are prohibited from divulging.
Once explained, a good reporter will not ask you to violate those rules. Moreover, rather than printing “no comment,” the reporter will usually point out that you are precluded from commenting for whatever the reason, as long as it’s legitimate. You also want to avoid commenting with the term “no comment.”
- Check out the following article for more information on “no comment”…
10. Educate Journalists
Last, but not least, take time to explain internal processes and procedures to new reporters and those whom you don’t know. Recall that most journalists cover multiple news beats and might be unaware about how your organization operates (and why).
Random reporters aren’t as informed or well versed in your organizational policies compared to you. Don’t mistakenly assume the opposite.
That’s why time spent in providing solid explanations and education to journalists usually pays off in more accurate and credible coverage — while also enhancing media relationships.
- Check out the following article on how to enhance media relations…
How personalizing relationships with reporters can lead to more positive press…medium.com
Try playing the role of professor and give the reporter an abbreviated lecture about your organization’s mission, goals, key issues and/or laws enforced. You will both be better off in the long run.
Responding to unexpected media queries can be a major inconvenience in your busy work day. No one likes being caught off guard by journalists.
Perhaps you were about to take a quick lunch break or get outside for some fresh air. Maybe you had to leave work early that day to pick up your kids at school for a scheduled dental appointment.
But then you receive a surprise media query directly or from your company’s press shop. Now, you must put everything else on hold to respond. Oh crap!
You can’t control when the press shop contacts you for immediate assistance on a media inquiry, or when a reporter surprisingly seeks you out directly.
You may have no other choice than dropping whatever other work is on your plate and taking time to talk to the reporter — regardless of how it impacts your work day and work-life routine.
However, the one smart move you can make is knowing how to engage the “media beast” in advance, so you’re ready to fend off any surprise attacks.
Otherwise, you risk being eaten alive.
- Also check out my multi-part series on how to master media relations…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a lifelong writer and communications consultant in the Washington, DC-area. He previously worked as a press aide in the White House, Congress and federal agencies. A native New Yorker, David was a journalist prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.