Top 10 tips for dealing with the news media
Friday, March 31, 2017
"Dealing" with the news media may not be at the top of your bucket list. In fact, it's probably true that most association professionals would prefer not to "deal" with the media. After all, that's what PR professionals are for, at least initially — they serve as a buffer and/or a conduit between you and the "60 Minutes" crew that shows up unexpectedly, wanting an interview.
While most of us will not be confronted by Steve Kroft, your job does not necessarily focus on media relations, where the story is one you perceive as positive or negative.
Your job is to run your association. PR professionals are there to do the heavy PR lifting, so you and your association can look good if you are indeed interviewed by anyone from any media platform.
Your image of PR pros may be the "spin meister," who is trying to spin something positive out of a negative situation because you see the spokespersons for politicians or corporations. The vast majority of PR pros are pushing positive stories and work under a strict code of ethics.
While entire books have been written on how to deal with electronic and print journalists — that is, how to best present yourself and your organization to the news media — it's possible to summarize this collective wisdom concisely, with just a few fairly simple tips that the PR profession has learned over the years, most of which come under the broad heading of KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Tip 1: Prepare
Have a few relevant points or facts readily available before you ever speak to a media representative, and take the time — or ask for the time — to check your facts before "going on the record." If possible, summarize your thoughts in a few simple key points.
Basic tasks? Sure, but not every manager has the time to follow through on this — that's what PR counsel is for. The more prepared you are, the better you will come across, the better the story will be.
Tip 2: Going on the record
Speaking of going on the record, never say anything "off the record," a phrase and a circumstance that can mean different things to different people. Always speak on the record, or assume that what you are saying to the news media is on the record.
Another way of putting this as follows: Don't tell the media anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of The New York Times.
Tip 3: Be careful what you say
Once a statement is posted on the Internet, it never goes away. Another way of looking at this is that it's now almost impossible to keep anything a secret for long.
Be careful what you say to any member of the news media. You may have to live with it for a long time.
Tip 4: Be aware of deadlines
With the current news cycle being practically instantaneous, the issue of deadlines has become even more vital. Ask about the journalist's deadline for the story.
Tip 5. Respond in kind
Given the deadline pressure of web-based journalism, the news media will often try to expedite a story as quickly as possible. One of the most common ways of doing this is through social media. Recognize that most journalists have Twitter accounts and, if you have a Twitter account, you are likely to be contacted through that platform.
Of course, if that happens, you can always retweet the inquiry back to your PR professional's account. Another part of this tip is to recognize that, especially in a crisis situation, respond to the media through the platform that first broke the story.
However, even in this 24/7 media frenzy world, different journalists prefer different ways to be contacted. Some have embraced social media; some still prefer an email or a phone call; some like a press release, some like a paragraph.
You are not the only story they are writing. Know what they cover. Know the time to follow up. Don't call the anchor of the 6 p.m. news at 5:55. You will not make friends that way,
Tip 6. Controversy
When dealing with even a potentially controversial issue, don't be afraid to ask your questioner your own questions. Or, better yet, have your PR counsel ask them for you beforehand.
Tip 7. The worst thing you can do
Never, ever, say, "No comment!" That is simply the worst thing you can do in a controversial situation. If there's one thing the media cannot forgive, it's someone who will not talk to them. This is, in their minds, the ultimate sin, a "peche mortel."
Guaranteed, if you say that, they'll stick your "no comment" in the middle of the story and make it look like either you're an idiot or you have something to hide, or both. For example, that's exactly what happened recently to a senior communications official at a distinguished local university.
"No comment" is like pleading the Fifth Amendment — uncertainty breeds incrimination and suspicion, even if there isn’t any such "guilt."
Be ready beforehand to explain your answers carefully. However, if indeed you are asked a question you don't want to answer at that moment, one approach is to state you need more information from your sources (they have their sources, you have your sources — only fair, right?) before answering and you will get back to them once you have that information. That will buy some time to frame an answer, but make sure you do get back to them.
This is also a reason why it helps to have a layer of protection — the PR person — between you and the media. PR people are great at getting information.
Tip 8. Market to the media
Surprise, surprise! The news media wants exactly what you want — they want to get ahead in their jobs. If you can make their jobs easier or if you know their hot buttons, you're ahead in the media relations game.
Marketing is basically the art of meeting the wants and needs of your public(s). In this case, the public is the news media and the goal is to market to them, by finding out their wants and needs.
At a recent Philadelphia Public Relations Association meeting about tips on pitching broadcast media, Stephen McKenzie of CBSTV3 said, "I have to consider what I think viewers care about and it has to fit the air, web and social, all three platforms."
Tip 9: They know nothing
One of the first rules of journalism is to assume that your readership knows virtually nothing about the subject of your story. Since public relations/media relations practitioners are journalists working from "the other side of the street," that's equally true when answering news media questions.
And, that's not a surprising assumption, since many reporters are generalists, not specialists, on a subject where often you are the expert. So, make sure you make your information clear, and, if necessary, offer to send them additional information, ideally in hard copy (i.e., by fax.)
Tip 10. Handle with care
Another way of looking at this list is as a guideline for handling the news media. As such, the best advice is, "handle with care." Be patient. Keep your cool.
In the end though, handle the news media with care. While they can, and do, give you free publicity in the form of news stories, it's not always by definition the publicity you want, and the news media are not your friends.
Their job is to sell — newspapers, web space, air time, etc. — not to support you. And they do that by publishing what they perceive is the story, not what you perceive. Or the editor might edit the story in a way that changes the intent or perception of the reporter.
Even so, the more prepared you are, the more relaxed you are, the more fun you can have in the situation. In most cases, it's going to be a positive topic. Develop a rapport with the reporter. If warranted, show some humor.
You should look and project well on video. Video is not only an essential component for TV. Print publications and radio are videotaping interviews and stories and posting on their websites and social media channels.
By following these guidelines and developing a professional relationship with reporters, they will return the next time you have a good story. That beats having your PR professional having to spin answers that try to make sense for something you said or did.
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