To Make the Most of Publicity, Understand the Media

"To the extent possible, know the media outlet and the reporter who is conducting the interview."

By David P. Kowal, APR

“Media training” is a growing, much needed and often misunderstood practice within the field of public relations. The term itself is a malapropism – a media-training program will not teach you to train the media, of course; it will teach you how to handle media interviews.

Business people often have an odd notion of how “the press” works. They may even think of editors and reporters as conspiring to ruin their business. Reporters are not nearly that insidious, but failure to understand how media work can easily mean the difference between an article or television feature that promotes your business and one that damages your business. Among the most important rules of media relations are the following:

  • Be honest. NEVER lie to or mislead a reporter or editor. If you are caught lying, you may permanently ruin your image and your company’s image. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell the reporter you will find out and get back to him or her.
     
  • Be prepared. To the extent possible, know the media outlet and the reporter who is conducting the interview. If a reporter calls and you were not expecting the call, ask why he or she is calling and tell him or her you will call back. Anticipate the tough questions and have appropriate answers ready.
     
  • Know your message. Research shows that individuals can remember only three points from an interview or presentation. Write down three simple message points and use them consistently in all communications. Tailor them as appropriate for each interview.
     
  • Get your message out, regardless of the reporter’s questions. Sometimes it is necessary to lead the reporter to whatever message you want to get out. Answer the reporter’s questions, but try to “bridge” your answers to whatever message you want to get out.
     
  • Proceed with caution. It’s the reporter’s job to be cynical. A typical interviewing technique is to ask the easy questions up front, and to build up to the tough questions when you’ve let your guard down. Another technique is to use silence in the interview. The reporter will ask a question, listen to your answer, then wait for you to add to your answer. That’s when the information comes out that you usually do not want to come out.
     
  • Treat the reporter as a professional. Never threaten the reporter. For example, never threaten to pull your advertising if the publication is going to publish a negative article. Also, don’t demand that the reporter show you the article before it’s published. NOTE: If the article is technical in nature, you can tell the reporter that you are willing to review the article for technical accuracy. If the reporter resists, don’t insist.
     
  • Be sensitive about deadlines. When reporters call, ask them about their deadline and don’t wait until the 11th hour to get back to them. If you fail to return calls from reporters on time, they will quickly stop calling.
     
  • Never say, “No comment.” Unless you have a very good reason, answer all of the reporter’s questions. If you do have a good reason, tell the reporter what the reason is (i.e., pending litigation, competitive reasons, proprietary information, etc.).
     
  • Understand what “Off the record” means. You may have information that is of interest to the reporter, but you may not want the information attributed to you. If that is the case, tell the reporter BEFORE you provide the information. Make certain the reporter understands when you go back on the record. Never, ever give a reporter information and then say, “Oh, by the way, that was off the record.” Even when following these ground rules, going “off the record” is rarely a good idea.
     
  • Think before you speak. Unless you say something is off the record, the reporter will assume that is it on the record. Before you answer a question, think about how your answer will sound in print or on the air. Be careful not to say anything that will offend someone you do not deliberately wish to offend.
     
  • Be colorful. Reporters love anecdotes, stories and colorful metaphors. Having a few written thoughts or quotes in mind before an interview can help. Typically, the reporter will interview several people for an article. The people who are quoted will be those who have the best quotes. Having statistical information readily available can also be helpful.
     
  • Ask for corrections only when warranted. Almost everyone who sees their words in print thinks they’ve been misquoted. Chances are, they have been. Reporters are imperfect and are typically working on very tight deadlines. A correction of a quote or a factual error or even a remark taken out of context should be requested only if the article is seriously flawed. Ignore slight errors and consider yourself lucky if the article is 90% accurate. Remember that if a correction is published, it will repeat the error. Also consider that asking for a correction is not unlike asking that a reporter be pilloried – when the correction appears in print, the reporter’s error is on public display. After a correction appears, the reporter may never call you again.

David P. Kowal, APR is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass. He can be reached at kowal@kowal.com.