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Dealing With the Media

If you develop a reputation as being a good spokesperson for your organization, at some point in time you will likely end up having to deal with the media.
Historically, the different forms of media ranged from relatively tame print trade publications (restricted to covering a particular field or industry) at one end of the spectrum through to the mainstream mass media of newspapers, radio and television at the other end. Today, bloggers, social media and online news sites are playing an increasing role in disseminating “the news”.
In the case of all media, there are generally three different types of “stories” for them to cover. The first is the information story, primarily covered by print publications, where the reporter believes readers will have an interest in learning more about your organization and its plans, products and services. This is typically the case with trade publications whose readers already have an affinity for the field the publications cover. Such an information story will also be picked up by bloggers who concentrate their attention on a specialized subject or industry.
The second type of story is the general interest or community story covered by the various forms of mass media whose readers and viewers are likely to be attracted to the story as it touches on their lives, daily concerns and passions in some way. Handled properly, such stories can build goodwill and understanding for your organization on the part of the public.
The third type of story is media coverage given to “hard news” of some event or development that is likely to capture the attention of the general public. Such hard news concerns a crisis or other major newsworthy occurrence that the mass media is going to cover, regardless of whether anyone in your organization chooses to say anything about the story. As the mass media usually assigns its most experienced reporters to this type of story, you have to be extremely skillful in conveying your organization’s side of the story.
In today’s world, however, the first reporting of such hard news often appears almost instantaneously in the social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Invariably, someone with a smartphone at the scene of the event starts tweeting or texting about it. Once this starts, the pressure on any affected organization to respond quickly becomes considerable, including using various forms of social media to do so.
When your organization is the subject of the third type of story, press releases will have minimal impact with the media. The assigned reporters will want to get their information directly from a variety of personal sources. In particular, they will want to talk to the most senior person they can access within your organization unless someone has been designated as its media spokesperson. The rest of this chapter assumes you are the designated spokesperson for your organization in dealing with the mainstream mass media of newspapers, radio and television.
Different Goals/Different Planets
The starting point in dealing with the media is always to keep in mind that the media and your organization have entirely different goals. The media’s goal is to maximize its number of readers, listeners and viewers. To accomplish this goal, the media has to report on stories in such a way that captures the attention of readers and viewers. Your goal is to have your organization perceived by the public in the most favorable or least damaging way possible.
Reporters get paid to produce news and stories that sell newspapers and boost radio and television ratings. Think of reporters as coming from an entirely different planet than yourself. Reporters have a process to go through and you are simply part of that process. They are neither your enemy nor a friend.
Approach any contact with the media with a certain amount of caution. Reporters are extremely experienced in employing a variety of techniques, including flattery, to get you to relax, let down your guard and say something newsworthy that you will later regret having said. Seducing you into doing so is part of their process. Also, do not assume female reporters will be less aggressive than males in pursuing a story.
It is definitely counterproductive to treat reporters with hostility or in a highly defensive manner. Understand how the media operates and how you can help reporters meet their needs without damaging your organization. Some reporters will appear to be aggressive and pushy when they are just acting under pressure to meet a deadline.
Never get into a fight with the media. As the saying goes, you cannot beat people who buy their ink by the barrel. These are battles you simply will never win. Your chances of beating the media by manipulating the reporters and distorting the facts are about zero.
In the final analysis, the various forms of media own their news stories. They have total control over how they choose to report a story. Yes, they want to tell the truth but they will do so in a way that serves their own goals.
If you are going to become actively involved on an ongoing basis as a spokesperson for your organization, it usually pays to identify those reporters for the various media whose work especially impresses you as it relates to covering your field or industry. Take advantage of opportunities to help those reporters become better informed on subjects where you have a special expertise or knowledge before your organization becomes the subject of a story. Become a source of reliable information for them. By developing such a relationship with reporters beforehand, you will have greater credibility with them when you need it. Just remember, however, they are still from a different planet.
Initial Contact
Resist doing an interview or making comments to the media on the spot in an impromptu manner. Say you will call back at a certain time. Before you do so, think through what the reporter is really after and research the reporter’s background.
Always, repeat always, decline to comment or answer questions from the media relating to a so-called rumor or speculation. Just firmly state, “It is my policy never to comment on rumors or speculation of any type.” And then keep your mouth shut.
When you are contacted for an interview on a serious subject, before you agree you need to develop an awareness of the reporter’s style and approach to covering a story. Read the reporter’s previous articles or watch videos of the reporter’s prior television interviews and programs. Whenever possible, talk to other people who have been interviewed by the same reporter. The more you understand the reporter’s biases and point of view, the better equipped you will be to make the right decision about your response to that reporter.
There will always be occasions when you should say “no” to a request for an interview from the media. Sometimes, you may not be the best person to speak on the issue at hand. In this case, attempt to steer the reporter to someone else in your organization or industry who can do a better job in terms of possessing the required knowledge on that issue.
Some radio and TV programs are known for taking a deliberately confrontational and even hostile approach to their interviews. Requests to appear on such programs should invariably be declined. Even if you are extremely articulate and skillful in your responses, the producers will likely edit your comments in a way that is harmful to yourself and your organization.
Prior to committing to give an interview, you usually have an opportunity to obtain the interviewer’s consent to certain conditions, such as no personal questions about your private life. With the print media, you can ask to verify the accuracy of your quotes and the facts used before the article is run. There are no guarantees, however, that such agreements will be observed.
When you are asked to participate in a radio or TV program, ask what is going to be the broad outline of the program and what subjects are likely going to be covered. Also, ask who else is going to be on the show and what positions are they likely to take. In addition, if you have an opportunity to talk to the interviewers beforehand, it is acceptable to ask them to give you an idea of the type of questions they are planning on asking.
If you are responsible for scheduling a press conference, select a time and place that suits as many of the different media as is possible. Each type of media has its own deadlines and special needs.
Avoid letting yourself get pushed into saying something as a result of a reporter having a deadline to meet. That is the reporter’s problem, not yours. Trust your instincts. If your gut says do not respond, keep quiet.
Avoid going into any interview situation with the media without doing the necessary preparation beforehand. First, put yourself in the reporter’s shoes. Ask yourself what exactly is the reporter trying to do with this interview, what angles is the reporter likely to pursue, what are the issues that the reporter is probably going to want to concentrate on.
Second, try to identify the most critical, embarrassing or toughest questions the reporter may ask. Develop answers to those questions that put your organization in the best possible light. Get the necessary information to help you do so.
Third, determine what you can do to help meet the needs of the reporter for the interview or story. Is there any background material, including facts and statistics, that you should give the reporter either in advance of the interview or when it takes place? Should the reporter be offered a tour of your facilities or the opportunity to meet other people in your organization?
Last, decide what you require to achieve a successful interview. Distill this into the two or three most important positive messages you need to convey to the reporter’s audience. Develop some alternative ways of expressing these messages in an articulate manner.
Ask your associates to help you with this preparation. Brainstorm the likely questions and how you should best answer them. If the interview concerns an issue with serious consequences, verify beforehand the extent of your authority to speak on behalf of your organization.
During the Interview
Follow these ground rules during print, radio and television interviews:
  • Use the reporter’s first name when you are answering questions and conversing with him or her.
  • Be yourself. Do not adopt a condescending or patronizing tone of voice. Express yourself simply and with conviction. Let yourself be enthusiastic and even passionate about what you believe in. Do not be afraid to show some emotions. You are supposed to be human.
  • Keep your answers concise, positive and sincere. Avoid rambling and the use of technical jargon. The more adversarial the question, the shorter your answer needs to be despite your natural inclination to give a long answer. The more you say, the easier it will be for the interviewer to turn your words against you. Say what you need to and then shut up. Do not be afraid of silences.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to get across your two or three most important messages. If an issue or question is raised that touches on one of your key messages, say something to the effect that: “When it comes to … , I think everyone needs to remember that … ” Try to do so as early in the interview as you can.
  • Help the reporter focus on the most important issues in the story. Inject key statistics, new human interest elements, colorful anecdotes and unusual facts into your answers and comments. On the other hand, resist getting side-tracked and giving the reporter more information than is needed.
  • If you are caught off guard with a hostile question, do not give a rushed answer. Instead, pause to give yourself time to think. Unless it is being carried live, any such pauses will be edited out in radio or television shows. You are also not obligated to give a direct answer to every question. As politicians often do, you can respond with a non-answer by essentially giving an answer to a different but more favorably related question.
  • When an interviewer makes an inaccurate statement that reflects negatively on you or your organization, do not hesitate to interrupt and politely but firmly correct the inaccuracy.
  • Do not let the interviewer put words in your mouth that are negative. Interject by saying, “Don, that’s not what I said. I stated that … ”
  • When you or your organization has made a mistake, you are always much better off to honestly admit it, accept responsibility for it, and apologize. Where appropriate, you should also describe what is being done to correct the situation. The sooner you do all this in an interview, the better. Avoid stalling, hedging or making excuses.
Staying Out of Trouble
Here are some recommendations to help you stay out of trouble in interviews:
  • Do not lie, exaggerate or make claims that you are unable to substantiate. Even so-called “white lies” will likely cause problems.
  • Avoid pretending to be an expert when you are not. If you are asked a question that is outside of your expertise, say something to the effect of, “I’m not an expert on that matter, so I’m unable to answer that question.”
  • Never make any “off-the-record” comments, regardless of what the reporter says. It is much safer to assume that everything you say will sooner or later end up on the record. “Just between us” is usually a meaningless phrase to reporters.
  • Refrain from commenting on the problems of other organizations, competitors and people, especially in a gossipy or speculative manner. Just say, “I’m not really in a good position to answer that.”
  • Avoid answering hypothetical questions (e.g., “What would you do if this were to happen?”). They are almost always loaded and end up leading you into territory where you do not want to go.
  • Resist answering any question by first using the words “Yes” or “No”. Being so categorical about anything can be dangerous.
  • If you are unable to answer a question, say so and briefly explain why if you can. Never say “No comment” as this tends to sound as if you are guilty or trying to cover up something. Giving a brief non-answer is better than saying “No comment.”
  • When you are under attack in an interview, never respond to a hostile question by letting yourself get angry and hostile in return. Grit your teeth, keep your cool and remain courteous regardless of the provocation. This will earn you points with the audience. If appropriate, calmly say, “That is totally unjustified [or inaccurate].”
Television represents the most challenging form of media as it projects your total image to the audience, not just the words you say. As is the case with giving a speech, the combination of your body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, and mode of dress is usually more important to conveying a positive image than the actual words you speak. If anything, the TV camera magnifies all of your nonverbal “expressions”.
When you are going on television, keep your appearance clothes-wise simple and on the conservative side. Wear solid-colored suits, jackets and dresses, preferably in navy blue, grey or darker colors but not black. Two-tone outfits like blazers with slacks or skirts with sweaters are fine providing the color contrast is not extreme. Avoid checks, plaids and other complex patterned materials. Wear shirts and blouses in solid pale light colors, like light blue or cream colored, which are preferable to the color white on television. Keep your tie, scarf and other accessories subtle and unostentatious in design, color and pattern. Males should wear calf-length socks so no bare skin shows below their pants. The objective in selecting your wardrobe is to avoid wearing anything clashing or jarring that distracts the viewing audience’s attention.
Prior to a TV interview, sit quietly by yourself or go for a walk. Review in your mind your main objectives for the interview, what you want to accomplish, and what are the interviewer’s principal goals. Remind yourself of the need to make the interview a conversation between yourself and the interviewer.
Eat lightly or nothing beforehand. Take advantage of any offer to have makeup professionals do their job on you. Immediately before starting the interview, drink some water to moisten and clear your throat.
Do not worry about looking at the TV cameras. Ignore them. Get yourself into the frame of mind that you are having a conversation with the interviewer in your living room at home. Talk to the interviewer, not the cameras. Let yourself move naturally. Try to avoid fidgeting or making any brusque or exaggerated movements.
Give yourself permission to be yourself. Try to assume an attentive but relaxed posture. Remember that you may be on camera even when you are not speaking. If you start to get nervous, just say to yourself that no one is really going to be watching the show anyway.
Keep your answers and comments short and to the point. Do not ramble on or beat about the bush. Unless the interview is being shown live, most of your responses will be edited down to about 12 to 20 seconds. This also applies to radio interviews. Remember to look at the interviewer as you answer questions, just as you would do when having a normal conversation with anyone.
Avoid nodding your head while the interviewer is talking or you will look like you are agreeing with everything being said. If you do not understand a question or need time to think, ask the interviewer to repeat the question.
One final caution about TV — when you find yourself in a situation where you are unexpectedly ambushed by television cameras and reporters somewhere, do not run away from them. If you do, they will likely show this to illustrate you are guilty of something. You are much better to stop, face the reporters, and say, “At this time, I’m not in a position to say anything about … ” Then, walk away.
In all your dealings with the media, you have to have realistic expectations. First, it is a mismatch of qualifications. Media reporters and interviewers are paid professionals who specialize in their craft of maximizing readers and viewers. You are not. Second, you and the media have totally different goals and responsibilities. Given all of the normal constraints, there will rarely be a situation where the media gets 100% of the story right, especially from your perspective. Over time, you will “win” some stories and interviews, and lose some. That is life. Do not take it personally.
Finally, make an effort to stay on top of the way in which social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is becoming a significant medium for distributing and posting news. Determine how your organization can use these new tools to “tell its story” in an effective manner.


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