A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who is opening a restaurant had a nice problem on his hands.
The nice part: a local newspaper reporter had arranged to interview him about the new venture. The problem part: my friend was a rookie when it comes to dealing with the media, and didn’t know what to expect or the “rules of engagement.”
While there are no hard-and-fast rules, and the precise circumstances of a media interview will certainly vary from one situation to the next, here are three ALWAYS and three NEVER tips that I shared with my restaurateur buddy.
If you’re an interviewee rookie–or a veteran in dealing with the media who wants to develop improved relations and improved coverage–then these pointers will serve as a solid media-relations foundation:
1. ALWAYS give (relatively) short answers
I’m not advising you grunt one- and two-word replies, like some caveman. But on the other extreme, resist the understandable inclination to give a detailed history of whatever topic you are discussing.
Remember: reporters are never far away from some kind of onerous deadline, so do them (and yourself) a favor and offer a direct, succinct answer to the question that’s been posed.
If the reporter has a follow-up query related to what you are discussing, he or she will ask it. (And if the reporter does not follow up with a question you want to answer, simply be sure to offer that information at some point later.)
2. ALWAYS prioritize your main points
There’s only so much room in a story, so you can’t expect the reporter to squeeze everything you say into the piece.
Related to the first point of offering short answers, keep in mind that reporters have only so much space for their stories and the more “blah-blah-blah” you give heightens the chances of those meandering details crowding out your most important messages.
So have two or three key points that you emphasize–if your High-Priority list is any longer than that, then you dilute what should be emphasized.
3. ALWAYS try to become a helpful resource
Ask the reporter what other stories he or she is working on currently or usually writes. Is there any way you can be a resource to help provide ideas or sources for those other stories down the road?
Don’t be over-the-top about it, but indicate your sincere desire to cultivate a relationship in which you are a valuable resource for the long term. This will endear you to the reporter and increase the likelihood of future media coverage.
1. NEVER ask (or demand) to see the story before it runs.
This reveals some combination of ignorance, presumptuousness and naivete that will cause quality reporters to bristle or, at the least, roll their eyes.
I got this question hundreds of times in my journalism career, and I always diplomatically explained that wasn’t possible.
Often, those with little to no prior media interaction simply didn’t know how the news-gathering and reporting process worked. But when it was a public official or someone who ought to have known better–or did know better, but was hoping I was a pushover–their credibility instantly diminished in my eyes.
2. NEVER say anything that you would not want to see in print.
No matter how many times you’ve spoken with a reporter…no matter how many flattering pieces he or she may have written about you…and no matter if you have gone “off the record.”
I always honored the OTR pact–encouraged sources to go off the record, in fact, so I could build trust over time. However, not every reporter possesses the same basic sense of ethics.
3. NEVER lie or mislead.
Once reporters discover you have duped them, they won’t soon forget it.
And frequently they will play “gotcha” journalism (looking for ways to catch you in a lie) as often as possible once you’ve earned this shady reputation. The grand total of your future benefits of the doubt with the wronged reporter: zero.
Having covered men and women of integrity–as well as those who fell far short of that ideal–I can personally attest to the consequences that befall those who commit this particular “never.”
And that’s no lie.