By Aaron Perlut, Founding Partner, Elasticity
I began my career in television, which lent itself to the near-decade I would later spend as a media spokesperson for several very large energy companies. During that period, depending on the day, I could be speaking to reporters on issues as mundane as a random power outage affecting one neighborhood to detailing the minutiae of nuclear security in the wake of the September 11 tragedy and everywhere in between.
Since then I’ve been counseling others–media spokespeople, corporate executives, military personnel, professional athletes and more—on how to engage with reporters effectively. Recently I’ve been doing quite a lot of it, and being rather fresh in my mind, I’d like to share 15 baseline tips, some of which are my own thoughts and others culled from respected industry colleagues as well as journalists.
1. Message is the bedrock: Message is the foundation of everything and anything in the marketing communications and reputation management world. If you cannot effectively articulate the value proposition of your organization, product, service or issue, why should anyone else care, listen or be influenced?
2. Have a strategy: If you were planning on having a meaningful conversation with someone who was important to you, wouldn’t you plan it out and think about the key points you wished to get across? Of course, which is why, in preparation for any interview, you should always go into it with the three key tenets of your message that you wish to stress. Then you can still allow the reporter to lead the conversation, even as you work to steer it back to your main points.
3. Be reasonable: In the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump has positioned himself as the loudest voice in the room while alienating significant groups he will likely need in order to win the general election. He’s been perceived by media as the antithesis of the reasonable party in the conversation while Ohio Governor John Kasich has staked a spot as the reasonable alternative. Being the reasonable party—not yelling the loudest but calmly making a case for your position—is an essential component to delivering a positive message to media, customers and other constituents.
4. Stay simple: There’s a quote that is often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that goes, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and it applies to media relations. Keep it simple, and avoid the weeds of needless details and deep technical jargon. Find the fundamentals of what you are trying to articulate, and avoid the jargon or inside baseball that only your wonkiest colleagues care about.
5. Don’t talk down: While you want to keep it simple, by the same token, do not talk down to the reporters or “dumb things down.” It’s a good idea to simply ask, “Are you familiar with the industry jargon?” If they say yes, then by all means use it—people appreciate when you respect their intellect. If they say no, then they will appreciate your willingness to dive deeper.
6. It’s a two-way street: An interview is a conversation between two people, and oftentimes, it can feel like a chess match. You have a message you want to get across, and the reporter is trying to accomplish something in doing their job. Help them get what they need by answering them as directly as you can in a way that still allows you to further your narrative. Just remember, the reporter probably has come with a set of questions, so do your best to answer them, not simply repeat your message over and over (cue the Marco Rubio examples).
7. Don’t stonewall: Media hates to be stonewalled. If a reporter decides to do a story, more than likely that story is going to get done. It is far more acceptable to simply decline participation than to refuse to answer questions, as the journalist will then report, “When reached, they declined comment,” making you look less than sympathetic and opening the door for the voice to be owned by detractors, competitors or others.
8. Avoid repeating the negative: Unless a herd of unicorns magically appear, you will get asked negative questions. Welcome to the natural cynicism of any good reporter. But rehashing a negative question simply reinforces the validity of it—particularly in broadcast interviews. So in your preparation for these potential questions, have an answer ready and simply state it and move on.
9. Take your time: You do not have to answer a question quickly, just effectively. So breathe, think and then keep your messaging in mind as you answer the question succinctly.
10. “I don’t know” is acceptable: Many people struggle to admit they don’t know an answer, and we are left with rambling musings meant to fill the void, which can often prove problematic. There’s nothing wrong with saying you don’t know something. In fact, reporters will respect it. Simply fess up: “I can’t answer your question, but I’ll do my best to find out and get back to you.”
11. “No comment” means “I’m guilty”: When you utter the phrase “no comment,” it tells a reporter you have something to hide, and reporters will actually quote you as saying no comment. Rather, simply say you don’t have the answer to the question or someone else would be better suited to answer it. If you really cannot comment for say, legal reasons, explain why. For example, “I’m sorry, but we have a policy of not disparaging competitors,” or “I was not present at the negotiations, so I don’t feel comfortable commenting about them.”
12. Bridge away from loaded guns: Whether it’s a conversation with a spouse, your vegan sister-in-law or a reporter, you will get loaded questions that you have very little interest in answering such as, “Hey, did you mean to kill all of that sea life with your oil spill?” Instead of taking the bait and engaging in a heated back and forth, perhaps use a bridge response to the effect of, “We’re doing everything we can to address these important issues.” But be prepared for the reporter to follow on—inquiring what you are doing in greater specificity. Consider, “We’ve hired several marine life researchers from the local university to assess the damage and suggest remediation measures.”
13. Fill your back pocket with data: When we try to make points, it’s the data that really hits home. Your news release probably has a number of facts relative to your announcement from third-party sources. So make sure you are prepared with data points to substantiate your point, and if quoting a survey, be sure to say who conducted it and how the information was gathered.
14. Don’t assume you’re “off the record”: With few exceptions, never assume you are off the record, particularly if you do not have a long-term relationship with the reporter. You may, after an extended period of time, build a strong rapport with a journalist, and a relationship of trust can then be developed. After all, a reporter will not want to burn a regular source. But always assume anything you say will be on tomorrow’s front page.
15. You cannot read the story first: Don’t ask a reporter if you can read or watch their story before it airs. They’ll think you’re out of your league. However, if your PR team has a strong relationship with the reporter and understands the story’s direction, hopefully you’ll survive this experience with your dignity and reputation intact.