A colleague recently made a point that made me pause: “Every conversation with a reporter can be a crisis situation.” As a media relations counselor for 15 years, I’ve seen the strong truth behind this statement. It’s a reminder of how critical preparation is for media relations professionals and spokespeople in their interactions with journalists. What we say to reporters can drive the direction of stories – hopefully for the better, but sometimes for the worse.
Don’t get me wrong. None of us should fear picking up the phone when we see a reporter is calling – or place the call when the need arises. But my colleague’s cautionary quote shines a light on the responsibilities that surround these conversations.
Here are five tips to keep in mind when talking with reporters.
1. Be prepared
Your call with a journalist could be the biggest factor that determines the media’s impression of your organization. Take the time to gather and/or review the relevant information, messaging, etc.; you need to bring to the conversation. Think about it: You wouldn’t go to an important business presentation without preparing, so why would you be “off the cuff” with someone who potentially will share information about your organization with thousands of important people? A recent Journalism Study by Cision indicates that reporters still rely heavily on PR professionals as sources. So the next time a reporter catches you at a bad time, ask if you can call him/her back in 15 minutes. Even 15 minutes of preparation will lead to a better discussion.
With the slimmed-down newsrooms of today, reporters often can’t focus because they’re being pulled in so many directions. You need to lead the discussion and get to the point immediately: Why will their audience care about your organization and what it’s doing? And be nimble enough to re-center your discussion if a reporter’s interest drifts in another direction.
3. Package your story, don’t pitch it
You want to make a reporter’s job as easy as possible, so focus your story around a timely and audience-valued news angle. And quickly and clearly lay out the visual possibilities, subject-matter experts, examples and human interest that will frame the entire story package.
4. Craft key messages and stick to them
As media relations professionals and spokespeople, we must have a firm understanding of the top key messages we want included in media stories. These messages need to be easy to remember and say. They should address the issue and provide some kind of call-to-action to the audience. Be sure you repeat your messages and tie back to them with every question. You may feel like a broken record, but in the end, our job is to make sure those messages are included in the stories. To help our staff and spokespeople, we have created some “quick reference message” sheets that remind them about the main message points during every reporter interaction.
There is no off-the-record. Journalists can use anything you say in the story. So be very careful about chitchat before or after the official interview. Something you say innocently could raise flags about a situation and trigger a reporter to search for a scoop. Also, be mindful of your surroundings at public events or trade shows, because you never know who’s within ear shot. And today, anyone armed with a camera phone can be an online journalist.
Have you ever felt like a reporter interaction went horribly wrong without preparation? Or have there been times you were prepared and had a home-run media story?