(pictured above: newsroom in action)
For some Government employees — especially those not schooled in the art of public affairs and media relations — speaking to reporters may cause more anxiety than giving a big speech. PR-types often call upon SMEs, subject matter experts (a.k.a. “policy wonks”) to respond to technical and legal media inquiries — often times without much, if any, notice.
The scenerio may resemble this: you’re an SME, tucked away in your quiet and cozy program office meticulously hammering out a draft policy proposal or legal document, when you receive an unexpected — and sometimes dreaded — urgent call, e-mail or personal visit from the Office of Public Affairs. Your stomach begins to churn, as you know immediately what’s coming next — this can’t be good, why me?
The S.O.S. request from the public affairs folks goes something like this: I’ve got a major media inquiry from the New York Times about [insert obscure technical or legal issue] and we need you to speak to the reporter ASAP because of a a super-tight deadline for a big story.
Oh great, you think, I’m on my own deadline for this priority work product, plus I’m about to step out for lunch and have to pick up the kids after school. What now?
Being a diligent team player, and knowing the public affairs folks work closely with top agency leadership, you’re really left with little choice but to drop everything and do the interview on very short notice.
Or, worse, an enterprising or slick reporter seeks you out directly, catching you off guard because they want to work around the Public Affairs Office — which may be perceived by the press of having bureauratic Government procedures in place that slow down reporters, rather than expedite the interview process. Either way, you’re now on the hook. Has this ever happened to you?
If so, for all the non-PR junkies out there, following are some basic quick tips to remember, rules for the road, if and when you must engage the “beast” — I mean media. Of course, the public affairs folks may be swamped with other competing work and not have time to appropriately provide a much needed pre-interview briefing before you are thrown into the lion’s den to meet-the-press.
Thus, below are some quick tips for talking to reporters on the fly. Please note these general and basic tips are neither all encompassing and exhaustive, nor meant to be a so-called Top 10 list. Most of the tips apply to print and online media — not broadcast news outlets like live TV or radio (that’s for another post). Hopefully, you will find these tips helpful if and when the media spotlight shines on you and your agency:
1) Proceed with caution. A good rule of thumb is: if in doubt, leave it out. Assume every conversation you have with a reporter is “on the record” unless otherwise indicated. Moreover, what you say may end up on the front page of the next day’s newspaper or become online breaking news, etc. So take your time when answering questions and try to control the interview, rather than have the reporter seek to control you. Some reporters will hammer away with loaded and biased questions that may be repeated like a broken record until you’re either worn down or caught off guard into giving the answer they seek. Sometimes all it takes is one slip of the tongue for your words to potentially be taken out of context or used by the news outlet to grind some political axe.
Remember, reporters aren’t always your friends, despite how friendly or soft spoken they may appear. Thus, don’t be fooled into letting them disarm you with slick maneuvers and clever interview techniques. Think before you speak and don’t get suckered into giving reporters only the answers they want to hear — which may hurt you and your agency. Even if you think the interview went well, the reporter may use that one instance in which you misspoke and blow it out of context in the story. Therefore, beware and always proceed with caution. It’s better to be safe than be sorry, especially when it’s your name and agency’s reputation on the line.
2) Know the rules of engagement. If you prefer to speak “off the record” or “not for attribution” you must tell the reporter at the start of the conversation and/or prior to divulging sensitive information you don’t want attributed to you by name or title. Before proceeding with the interview, first make sure that you and the reporter understand and agree upon the rules of engagement so there are no misunderstandings or discrepancies after the story runs.
3) Speaking On-the-Record: Whatever you say may be attributed to you directly by name and title. Or, to put it another way, what you say can and may be used against you. Remember, it’s your butt on the line.
4) Speaking Off-the-Record: What you say will not be attributed to you at all. The reporter is responsible for confirming the information through other sources and attributing it to them, not you, or to no one at all.
5) Not-for-Attribution: What you say may be attributed to you, but not by name. You select the terms of attribution up front. Tell the reporter, I want to make sure I’m not quoted directly by name. Terms of attribution may include an “agency spokesperson” or “government official” or “senior advisor” — etc. The bottom line is for you to decide, not the reporter because, according to them everything is assumed to be on-the-record unless otherwise indicated. Although some reporters will ask, “can I quote you on that?” Thus be aggressive and establish attribution at the start of the conversation, before getting into the nuts and bolts of the interview. If the reporter asks why you can’t be quoted by name, simply tell them you are either not authorized to speak on-the-record, or the information you are conveying is of a sensitve nature. Remember, you set the rules.
6) Be responsive. Always return a reporter’s phone call or respond to an e-mail, tweet, etc., the same day. Even if you have no substantive information for the reporter, or cannot comment on the story directly, a call to advise the reporter will avoid a negatively perceived media statement in the story, such as “XYZ agency did not immediately respond” or “could not be reached for comment.” Being responsive to reporters, especially those on deadline, will help forge a mutually beneficial working relationship. Courtesy counts and professionalism goes a long way. Also, if you don’t know an answer immediately, don’t manufacture one — offer to call a reporter back with a response after double checking, or have an SME do the talking. It’s always better to provide an accurate response — or even none at all — than an immediate reply which may be wrong. Remember to ask about the reporter’s deadline, and meet it, if you arrange to respond later. Also, if you strive to be ultra-responsive, give the reporter your mobile contact info in case they or their editors have questions after hours. Sure, no one likes being disturbed at home, but it beats having incorrect info reported and then having to seek a correction or clarification after the story is out — and, subsequently, being taken to the woodshed at work the next day.
7) Always tell the truth. It is unethical to lie in the course of your duties as a Government employee. Lying or misrepresenting the facts risks losing not only your own credibility, but also that of your agency. Reporters are taught to verify information with other sources, so think before you speak and make sure the info you convey is correct and truthful. Remember young George Washington and the Cherry Tree?
8) Don’t comment on everything — or anything, for that matter, unless or until you are fully prepped and prepared. Having time in advance to do your homework before an interview is an ideal situation, which isn’t always possible. If you have “no comment” simply tell the reporter. It is the reporter’s job to try to obtain a comment from you. It is your job to provide accurate and honest information. Thus, no matter how persistent or pesky the reporter is, not matter how many times they may frantically contact you, do not comment if you believe you should not. Stay calm and in control.
9) Confidentiality counts. If applicable, explain legal and statutory confidentiality provisions, rules or regulations regarding sensitive information you are asked about. Once the law is explained, a good reporter will not ask you to violate it. Moreover, rather than printing “no comment,” the reporter will usually write/say that you or the agency are prohibited by law from commenting – which is how you should explain it to them. Make sure the reporter understands the confidentiality provision and can cite it to the source — like Title VII, section 709(e), the Code of Federal Regulations, or the Privacy Act, for example. If the reporter won’t take that for an answer, then tell them to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the legal eagles to deal with as a last resort.
10) Educate the media. Take time to explain processes and procedures to reporters when appropriate. Reporters who cover your agency also cover other news beats and topics. For that reason, they may not be as informed about, or well versed in, your agency’s mission, policies and procedures as they could or should be. The time spent in providing solid explanations and education should pay off in a more accurate and credible story, not to mention good media relations. So put on your teacher’s hat and give the student (reporter) a lesson. You will both be better off in the end.
“Media Relations: Shaping the Story”
* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.