Think Like a Reporter

A simple guide to handling press relations during a crisis

Written by Jim Preen
Crisis Management Director @ YUDU Sentinel

The thought of facing the press can seem terrifying and with good reason. You could get caught with a question you hadn’t anticipated, have your comments taken out of context or simply freeze in front of the camera. There is the very real possibility of harming both your reputation and that of your employer.

Engaging with the media is fraught with problems, but sometimes you can’t avoid facing the press. This short document is all about understanding what the media want and how you can deliver it on your own terms through thorough preparation.

Think like a reporter

If you’re going to work with reporters, you need to start thinking like one. Then you can concentrate on delivering your key messages.

Ultimately you will never have anything like complete control over how the media report a story, but you can put yourself in a good place and have some influence over the outcome.

Listen to the questions

This may sound obvious but listen to what the reporter asks and do your best to answer. If you don’t you look like a slippery politician.

Obviously, there may be areas you won’t want to talk about, and you’ll need to think about how you deal with that issue. You will also want to get across your key messages, but we will get to that shortly.

Keep it short

If the questions get tough keep your answers short. The more you say the greater the chance of your key messages getting lost.

And try to avoid sector speak. All that jargon and acronyms that come naturally to you may be incomprehensible to others.

Be specific

Support your points with specific evidence - don’t talk in general terms. It’s boring and unconvincing.

Be pro-active

Build relationships with reporters during the good times. Credibility with the media is important and could come in very handy if things turn pear shaped.

Message Discipline

Messages are the core of any media interview or press conference. Your messages will present the public with your position on a variety of issues. Three or four key messages need to be determined before undertaking any form of interview.

Bridging

The bridge is a useful rhetorical device to get from a question to your message. The object is to answer the question and then pivot via a verbal bridge to the message you want to get across.

Some examples of verbal bridges:

  • The real point here is
  • The fact of the matter is that
  • What’s really important here is

Rules to Remember

The microphone is always on, the camera is always rolling, and the notebook is always open. Assume anything you say to a reporter, whether as part of a formal interview or when just chatting, is fair game and can be used.

Stand your ground and don’t walk away no matter how infuriating the journalist becomes. Maintain a calm and professional manner.

Take control

The reporter doesn’t hold all the cards, you will always know more about your subject than the journalist. Your role in an interview is not just to fill the gaps between questions but to drive the interview to a destination that suits you.

Avoid hostility or sarcasm

Sarcasm usually backfires, both in print and in broadcast. Reporters love to use hostile, sarcastic or angry quotes, or sounds bites in their stories, believing they reveal more about the company or person than everything else the spokesperson had to say, and because they are ‘good copy’, or ‘great TV’. Think very carefully before laying blame on others.

Tell the truth and don’t speculate

If you don’t know the answer to a question say so, don’t try to bluff and don’t speculate about causes or outcomes. If you speculate, what you say may ultimately emerge as being wrong or misguided and has the very real possibility of coming back to bite you.

Reporters generally respect an interviewee who says they will get back to them with additional information.

Stay positive

Don’t repeat a negative in your answer. For example, if the journalist says the public has branded you and your executives are a bunch of incompetents. Never use the word incompetent in your reply. Simply say, “That’s not true – we understand very clearly what we do and are working hard to fix the problem.”

However, it will be important to say what it is you ARE doing to fix the problem if your answer is to have any traction. If possible, ignore a negative question and go directly to your message.

General techniques

Attempt to find out what the questions will be in advance. Tell the producer or reporter you want to do this so you are fully prepared, and preparation will make for a better interview.

You can request certain questions are not asked, or certain topics are not addressed. Reporters may respect this but it’s not likely and they don’t like it. Be ready for the reporter to addresses the ‘out of scope issue’, by saying why you can’t answer that question.

For example, “As I mentioned before, I can’t discuss that matter now…” or “I’m sorry that’s a personal topic, and as you know, I am not going to discuss it publicly.”

You can ask to see an article or a TV news package before it’s printed or broadcast, but very few reporters will agree to this. The reporter may agree to ‘fact check’ direct quotes or facts that have been provided to ensure they have the right information.

Your Interview Strategy

Whoever has to the face a reporter must be pre-interviewed by a member of the comms team and are asked all the hard questions. Never try to wing it.

Preparation is the key to projecting a positive image and conveying your messages. This cannot be overstated. Successful interview preparation involves creating a message strategy for each interview and delivering.

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