Talking to Reporters: Ten Tips

(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.

ALSO SEE:

“Media Relations: Shaping the Story”

https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/media-relations-shaping-the-story

DBG

* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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15 Comments

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Profile Photo Joe Flood

I’d add – be concise. I’ve been a reporter and have also been quoted in stories before. The key (at least if you want to be in the story) is to be able to simply state your opinion in clear language that the public can understand. A short, declarative sentence with a verb and 10-20 words in it is perfect 🙂

Also, make 100% sure that what you say is accurate. I worked for a nonprofit that inadvertently gave a reporter some incorrect information. Years of heartache followed as the reporter dug for dirt on the nonprofit, convinced that they were hiding something.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Excellent advice, Joe, being clear and concise always helps. Ideally, one will have time to prep and use talking points which have been cleared by the Office of Public Affairs — at their insistence, of course. Regardless, it’s always good to have a few crafty and clever “sound bites” and one-liners at your disposal to get that crucial quote in the story.

An aside: I too was a journalist before my Government career, as well as a journalism student before that. Sometimes, I actually miss being on the other side. It’s a question of whether you like knowing and disseminating info and trying to shape a story, or being the one to investigate and write/produce the story (with your news outlet having ultimate editorial control).

One thing that always burns me up is when top agency leadership blame public affairs staff after parsing content of a story which they think should have been better reported — even though you did everything in your power to provide the right info, positively influence the outcome, and showcase all the good done by your agency. It’s as if the agency head and/or their all-knowing advisors think that you, the PR person, reported the story yourself. Sometimes, they just don’t get it and don’t know what they don’t know about media-Government interactions.

One way to tell if the outcome is good — from their standpoint — is if you hear nothing negative back from the powers-that-be. They are often quick to blame, but super slow or relecutant to offer praise. Thus, PR folks should not always base professional self-worth on pleasing the king or queen, because they usually “don’t get it” anyhow. Remember that you’re the PR/media expert, not them.

Profile Photo Jerry Schmidt

David,

Spot on article. I actually taught spokesperson training seminars for an NGO and I always told them to know why the media would be calling them. Reading a couple of online newspapers, looking for trending stories or just watching the morning news while drinking coffee before coming to work can give you a clue as to why you are being called upon (for tech folks, an example would be the DNS virus scare we just went through.)

I also agree with you on the point about not knowing the answer. Never hesitate to say “I don’t know, but I will find out and get right back to you.” That’s very important. Nice piece.

Profile Photo Ori Hoffer

A couple of comments – if a reporter contacts you directly, out of the blue, I would ask how they found you – it’s just good info to know what your public profile/Google search says about you. Please loop in your public affairs person as soon as possible. If they didn’t set the interview up, they need to know that there is a potential story coming out so they can be prepared to deal with it (if it’s a negative one) or promote it (if positive).

Don’t be afraid/shy to record your conversation – just be sure to let the reporter know you’re doing so. This will protect you if you feel you were misquoted or had your comments taken out of context.

I would put #6 – Be Responsive up higher. The reporter hasn’t just contacted you at random, give them some sort of answer, even if it’s “call me back in 10 minutes” so they know they will be able to get something and won’t have to move on to option 2, 3 or 10.

DON’T ask to see the list of questions beforehand, but DO ask what the subject matter is or what the story is about before you agree to talk.

DON’T ask for some sort of story approval before it goes to press/air. DO ask for a copy of the story to be sent to you once it does.

Profile Photo Dick Davies

Sounds like you’ve been through the fire more than once.

Thank you.

I learned several new ideas, most important to relax. Someone else’s emergency is not necessarily mine.

Profile Photo Henry Brown

The only thing that I would/could add would be make absolutly certain that you have permission from your organization to talk to the press. It CAN get rather ugly, especially if you do not want to deal with irate management…

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Thanks very much for your kind comments, Andrew and David. I greatly appreciate your feedback. I plan to pen future blogs based on other other micro-targeted media tips for related topics. I’m pleased that folks are finding this info interesting and useful. Interactions between Government and mass media are important for transparency, Open Govt and to feature the innovative works of agencies. However, when agencies screw up, the media will hold them accountable (per GSA, CIA, etc.). The media as a Govt watchdog was a cornerstone of the Founding Father’s vision for a free and independent press. Thanks again!

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the astute comment, Jerry. I totally agree that folks should take some time to keep updated on the news, especially in their subject matter area. With all the Internet search engines, this does not take much effort. Just use Google News to type in a key word or phrase to personalize your instant results. Moreover, you can program Google to send e-mail alerts to your inbox with news stories that mention the key words you submited. What can be easier than that?

This is even most important prior to an interview. Even if one is well prepared and apparently ready for the interview, they may neglect to check the latest news on the topic right before the interview — we all know how quickly news breaks in the 24/7 online news cycle. Few things are worse than getting a “surprise” question about breaking news or the latest news in the course of an interview. Being caught oblivious –while ask onself when the heck did that happen? — may instantly damage one’s credibility. Such a scenerio might even alter the course of an interview in mid-stream, with the reporter going from friendly and objective, to subjective and in attack mode. I’ve seen this happen, once during a taped interview with the late/great Mike Wallace of CBS “60 Minutes” — and, believe me, it wasn’t pretty. The interview subject, an agency head, froze up and went into panic mode (to the shock and dismay of the public affairs staff). Fortunately, we did some subsequent damage control and that part of the interview was cut out of final story that aired to millions. Whew, close call!

Thanks again for the great advice, Jerry, much obliged.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Ori, thanks so much for your comments. Regarding your points:

1) It certainly never hurts to ask a reporter how they found you (non-public affairs staff). A lot of times reporters get the names of Government attorneys from court filed documents, which are public info. Other times it may be the reporter getting a name out of a directory and calling the agency’s main number and asking for the person, albeit without identifying themselves as a reporter.

2) Good point about always informing the press handlers at your agency if you should receive a surprise call from a reporter. Sometimes the public affairs office needs to gather info about the nature of the call and may refer the reporter to a different SME within the agency or an agency leadership official. Ideally,, a public affairs person shoud staff any fairly significant media interview — and take copious notes.

3) I beg to differ about recording a press interview, unless it’s with top agency leadership. I think many reporters DO take personal offense when asked if an interview may be recorded by the Government. In my experience, that’s bad for media relations because — despite your good intentions — it implicitly tells the reporter that you don’t trust them and that you are concerned about misquotes or other inaccurate info in the story. On the flip side, If you foster excellent media relations and have a good working relationship with the reporter, than recording the interview is not necessary. You should just staff it and make sure to take meticulous notes.

4) This blog was not a Top 10 list, as stated in the post. Had it been, then I would have put “Be Responsive” much higher up — as a agree with your comments on it.

5) I disagree about not asking to see the list of questions before an interview. Yes, many reporter may refuse the request, but some won’t. Moreover, if you foster excellent media relations the reporter may not think it’s a big deal. It’s always better to get as much advance info from a reporter as possible so you may better brief and prepare whomever does the interview (especially if it’s the agency head).

6) I also respectfully disagree about not asking for any info about the story before it goes to print, online or on-air. For example, if you have an excellent relationship with the reporter/editor/producer, etc., they may not have a problem with double checking a quote with you — or other info — to ensure accuracy in the story (which is usually as important to the reporter as to the Government agency).

Again, many thanks, Ori, for your feedback.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Henry, thanks very much for your important comment. You are absolutely correct that any career Government official — and political folks too, ideally — should get approval from the Office of Public Affairs, or whatever office handles media for the agency,before ever engaging the media. Otherwise, as you note, offender may get berated — and possibly by more than one irrate office or manager. If the agency head is upset about it, the offender may really be taken to the woodshed, depending upon his/her status within the agency.

I suppose there may be a rare exception at some agency out there for specific officials to engage the press without prior approval. This is just a guess, but such a rare exception may occur due to internal agency politics and procedures, etc.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the comments, Dick, I’m glad you found the post helpful. You have the correct perspective about remaining relaxed, calm, cool and composed when contacted by the media and/or public affairs team. First, keeping your cool will show reporters that you’re not nervous or intimidated about talking to them. If a reporter senses an interview subject is nervous and jittery, that may be perceived as a sign of weakness to exploit with aggressive or biased questions (think about what happens when a shark senses blood in the water).

Second, one can usually think more clearly, make smarter decisions, and provide better answers to reporters when they don’t feel under pressure from the press (or others, for that matter). However, even if an agency’s media handlers are freaking out about a press headache (because it’s techincally their “problem” per se), consider that such headaches can spread beyond the public affairs office and become migraines for everyone if mishandled. Media inquiries and/or resulting negative news may quickly turn into the agency’s problem due to public perception, rather than an internal problem for one or two offices.

Thus, please also consider the internal and external perceptions of bad press. Therefore, agency staff and SMEs should always try their best to assist the public affairs folks — and reporters — to the best of their abilities when called upon, as necessary and appropriate — even with little notice. Remember, the media “problem” at issue may quickly spiral out of control if agency folks are non-responsive or unhelpful — making it everyone’s problem or concern at some level. For example, while the public affairs folks are on the frontlines and take the heat, the entire agency may be tainted by negative press (ie. GSA, CIA, TSA, etc.).

Thanks for considering this, Dick, and thanks again for your throughtful comments.