There is more to working with the media than simply responding to questions. You need to develop a cooperative relationship, and become a valued resource.
When you are on good terms with the local media, they can become an important tool in your district’s communications toolbox. The media can enhance your image, or they can destroy it. A relationship built on mutual respect benefits everyone.
To build a solid relationship, it is helpful to understand what the media looks for in a source. Some tips:
- Tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts. One needs to look no further than the current presidential race to understand that lies warrant headlines. The truth is rarely as interesting. This does not mean, however, that you must reveal every ugly truth or fact that will have a negative impact on your district. Sometimes, it is better to say nothing. But when you do speak, tell the truth.
- Avoid “no comment.” That singular phrase packs a powerful punch, in a negative way. It implies you have something to hide. It is much more effective to respond, “I have not had the chance to completely review the facts,” or “We are still reviewing the situation, so it would be inappropriate for me to speak further at this time”. When you know you will be unable to reply to questions, plan your response ahead of time.
- If you don’t want a statement quoted, don’t make it, even if it is “off the record.” If you don’t want information released to the public, don’t reveal it. Sure, you may trust the reporter, but going off the record with potentially harmful facts creates a dilemma for most reporters. If a story is newsworthy, it is their job to pursue it. The reporter may not quote you, but they can use the information you provide and verify it through another source. There are times when you may want to go off the record to explain why a reporter should not report specific information. In those cases, make sure that you have a longstanding relationship with the reporter, and they understand that your comments are not for attribution or inclusion in a story.
- Speak in headlines. Reporters use a writing style called, “the inverted pyramid.” The conclusion is stated first, followed by supporting facts. To communicate effectively with a reporter, you need to mimic that style. If you build your case before stating the most important fact(s), the reporter might miss the true story. Give them the headline, and then let them follow-up.
- Answer the question. If you do not understand a question, ask for clarification. If you don’t know the answer, say so. If a question strays from the stated agenda, bring the reporter back to the topic. If the question concerns privileged or confidential information, decline to respond on those grounds. Otherwise, if possible, answer the question. Public figures are infamous for “beating around the bush” and that irritates reporters. The good reporters will keep asking the same question until they get a response. If no response is forthcoming, the story shifts to the fact that you were uncooperative, or worse, deceptive.
- Don’t argue with reporters. When an interview becomes heated, reporters get excited. They smell a bigger story. If you lose your cool, that may become the story. If you sense an interview is going in the wrong direction, end it as soon as possible.
- Don’t ask to read an article before it is published. That insults the reporter. You can, however, politely say, “I know we have covered a lot of information today. If you have any more questions, or would like me to review anything, please contact me.”
- Keep it short and simple. Reporters want short, definitive answers, and they tend to contact those sources they believe will deliver. Your communications style makes a difference between becoming a useful source and one to be avoided.
In radio and TV news, reporters think in terms of “sound bites”, seven to ten second statements that tell the whole story. Never assume that because you are being interviewed, a reporter will automatically include your remarks in a story. If you want to be quoted, keep your responses short, simple, and relevant.
- You need to give a little to get a little. The reporter/source relationship is based on goodwill. It is a two-way street. Suggest relevant stories, or provide background information. Return phone calls before deadlines. Be available after public meetings. If you help a reporter do their job, they will help you do yours.
- Loose lips sink ships. Some of the best news stories have originated with comments overheard in restrooms, elevators, restaurants, and in hallways. These days, all it takes is a phone to record a conversation or take a photo, and almost instantly, it appears on social media. If you are in a public place, assume you can be overheard, and avoid discussing confidential information.
- You have rights, too. You have a right to be interviewed in a setting or at a time that is comfortable for you. If contacted at home, it is appropriate to suggest the reporter contact you at your office. You are not required to interrupt meetings to speak with a reporter, nor are you required to consent to every request for an interview. Similarly, if a television crew shows up at your office, you do not have to admit them. Cooperate when there is a mutual benefit. Otherwise, decline the interview.
While you may seek to develop a positive relationship with one particular reporter, it is important to deal with all media fairly and responsibly. There will always be reporters with offensive personalities, or questionable motivations. The best defense is always a good offense. Be civil and be honest.