Don’t become a victim of the media ambush

There was a lot of interest in a recent social media post I shared about how it is a big no-no to ask a reporter his or her questions ahead of an interview. I agree, most of the time. However, there are exceptions to this rule.

Conversations between reporters and media relations/communications staff occur all the time. It’s an essential part of the job for both. As a result, it is often possible to ask reporters with whom you have an established working relationship where they are going with a story. I even had an investigative TV reporter who agreed to sit down for a pre-interview with no camera present. It was his idea, not mine. I know! It was shocking to me, too.

The reporter had been looking into a specific program. There had been requests for all kinds of documents and information. There had been back and forth discussions for weeks and there was a pending request for an on camera interview with the person responsible for managing the program. The entire staff knew the reporter was poking around, but we had not been able to figure out what about this program had piqued his interest. Then his surprise offer came to sit down across the table from one another with no camera present.

Why say yes? 
 I am fully aware that any conversation with a reporter — on or off camera, on the phone or in person — may wind up being part of a news story. Nevertheless, it would have been nuts to say, “No, thank you. I think we are going to pass on the chance to find out where you are going and just wait until you stick a microphone in front of us and begin asking questions.” He had given us the unique opportunity to see the cards in his hand. Of course, I said yes.

A chance to prepare
 
As a result of this chat, we learned about the allegations the reporter had received from a third party. Not only did he have information we did not have, he also had documents none of us had seen before. The discussion wound up benefiting us more than it benefited him. We now had valuable information that would be helpful in preparing for an interview in front of the camera, which I knew we could not, and should not, avoid.

The ambush
 Unfortunately, not every member of the team embraced this gift that had dropped in our lap. Instead of seeing it as an opportunity to gather facts and prepare appropriate messaging, there was a decision to cut off any further communication with the reporter. Frustrated with the lack of response, the reporter devised his own plan for getting what he needed at a date, time and location of his choosing. There would be no advance notice. There would be no time to prepare. It would be an ambush. When it happened it was not at all pretty. There were legitimate explanations that could have been provided to mitigate the story being told by the third party. Instead, the client got angry and argumentative and the reporter walked away with a considerable amount of on camera footage that made the client look bad.

Don’t let it happen to you 
 It didn’t have to be this way. With a little preparation and an agreement to do the interview, the outcome would have been vastly different. Of course, there will always be reporters out there who want to sensationalize a story, but the vast majority of them want to be fair and want interview subjects adequately prepared before they sit down to answer questions.

The reporter who steps forward to offer a pre-interview is going out of his way to ensure you have adequate opportunity to prepare before the camera is turned on. Don’t repeat the mistakes I have detailed here. Take the offer; then, with few exceptions, you need to follow through with the more formal interview. It might not be the easiest conversation you will have with a reporter - especially if the story is about wrongdoing - but if you’ve used the information gleaned in the less formal exchange, you will be prepared with reasonable talking points or an apology, if necessary. That’s right. If there has been wrongdoing, you will need to stand up, fess up and fix it up. Defending that which any reasonable person would find indefensible will only create more problems.

What do you think?
 In my opinion, this approach is far better than being a victim of a media ambush. I’m interested in your thoughts. They just might help all of us be better at what we do.

Janice is a public affairs/public relations strategist. Her most recent position was as chief policy officer/director of communications for the mayor’s office in Houston, Texas. She is actively pursuing new opportunities. You can find out more about her at http://www.jevansdavis.com or via her social media links below.