Details at Eleven

or, A Crash Course in Public Relations

I started this post wondering if I would, in fact, finish it. Because we live in a world of mass communication and everyone has had to interact with journalists of varying stripes, right? So, who needs advice on dealing with the media?

Then I realized that I had gotten most of my information from classes taken as an adult, one sponsored by New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission and the other sponsored by the Connecticut Tax Collectors Association, along with a smattering of hints that I picked up on the fly by reading blog posts on unrelated subjects. I went to public school; most of my education was snatched at random from unrelated subjects, so I’m used to that method of learning. But not everyone’s mind works that way, so I started thinking, maybe there is a need for all of this information, and a need for it all in one place.

(Okay, I confess: I’m also writing this post to fix the material in my mind so I can pass a test on it in two weeks)

Ahem. Anyway. Let’s talk about dealing with the media, preferably without becoming the next day’s lead story.

The first thing to remember is that journalists are not your friend, confessor, or psychologist. Their job is to report events that occur (and, increasingly, to editorialize about these events) with the intention of selling as many newspapers, site clicks, and ad dollars as they can. Human nature being what it is, controversial subjects get the most attention, and journalists are trained to ferret out any hint of conflict and turn it into an attention-grabbing headline.

This does NOT mean you should be hostile when approached by a reporter. They will typically assume your abruptness means you have something to hide, and will question you more closely that they might have if you stayed calm and polite.

Some situations allow you to lay pre-interview groundwork. If you’re representing a larger institution (a company, school, government department/agency, even your family) have a designated spokesman- and a backup spokesman, in case the first is unavailable. Make it clear to your co-workers that they must refer all questions to the spokesman. Even if you’re only representing yourself, anticipate moments when you might be called on to deal with the media, and know your facts beforehand.

Because reporters love controversy, they will often approach you at the worst possible moment. The NEIWPCC class concentrated on public works departments, who have to deal with low-level disasters and the predatory reporters who follow them. It’s no easy feat, juggling a broken water main, angry taxpayers, and a media that’s clamoring for a story.

Most writers won’t find themselves in that situation, but the solution is the same: If a reporter calls you, don’t comment on the subject at hand (don’t say ‘no comment’, either; that makes you look like you’re hiding something). Get their contact information, their deadline, and a brief description of the information that they want; then hang up the phone and call back after you’ve had time to gather your thoughts (and any necessary facts, of course). Don’t blow off a reporter; that only makes them mad and more determined to get the story, often to your disadvantage. If the interview is outside the scope of your expertise, refer them to the right person- and immediately tell that person that they’re about to get a call from the reporter, so they’re not blindsided. If you simply don’t want to discuss an issue, politely refuse the interview.

During the interview:
• Assume that the interview begins as soon as you pick up the phone or begin a conversation. Cameras are always on, even if the little red light isn’t.

• Be polite. Don’t lose your cool if the interview starts to become controversial. If you do flub an answer, stop, take a deep breath, and start over.

• Take care of your appearance, particularly if there are cameras present. Comb your hair. Ladies, put on a bit of makeup- make sure it looks natural. Dress professionally, in colors that flatter your skin tone, and avoid clothing with commercial insignias or sayings. They’re distracting. In the same vein, try to keep your hand gestures and body language natural, not too animated.

• Don’t be afraid to set boundaries on subject or length.

• Don’t allow the reporter to lead you onto irrelevant topics.

• Avoid jargon if you can, and explain it if you can’t, even if you think the reporter understands you. The readers/viewers may not.

• Stick to the facts. No lying, gossip, or rumors.

• Stick to your area of expertise and don’t speculate; you’re not the reporter’s only resource, and you lose credibility if someone contradicts you.

• Be clear, concise, consistent, and conversational (if you sound rehearsed, the reporter will think you’re hiding something). Don’t read prepared remarks, unless you’re giving a formal statement.

• Make sure that any publications that you give to the reporter (business cards, brochures, bookmarks, etc.) are professionally printed, spell-checked, and accurate.

• Never use sarcasm or make jokes. A lot of people do this when they’re nervous and trying to ease the tension, but it can backfire spectacularly. As we know, there is no sarcasm font, and what is obvious in spoken language can be obscure when put in writing.

• End the interview once you covered the relevant subjects.

Neither of my public relations classes mentioned the advisability of making one’s own recording of all interviews. But most of those teachers and students are center-left bureaucrats, and tend to trust that the media is on their side. I’m more inclined to follow the advice of my friends in the blogosphere, who have to deal with a hostile media, and have ‘make your own recording’ as one of their central tenets. Check the laws in your state- some places require both parties to consent before recording any interaction. If a reporter doesn’t want you to make your own recording, stop the interview immediately! They do not have your best interest in mind, and are probably planning to edit the recording to make you look bad or stir up controversy.

That said, not all of your dealings with the media have to be fractious. Press releases and other ordinary announcements can be used to build a cautious relationship with reporters, making them less likely to nail you to the wall next time they find an opportunity. Remember, they’re still not your best friend, confessor, or therapist. Be polite and professional. A good press release is short and to the point. It answers the ‘W’s- who, what, when, where, how. There’s usually not enough space or time to answer why, but the announcement should include contact details so the audience can find more information on their own time.

The reporter will usually send you a proof of any printed press releases. Make sure dates and times are correct- this is extremely important for public officials like tax collectors, who are under a legal obligation to announce when taxes are due. But it’s also important for us as writers- no one wants their readers to see the wrong release date/ title/blurb for their latest masterpiece. If a friend or fellow blogger offers to post a promo for your book, go to that blog and read the post after it goes up. If you see something wrong, contact the blog admin ASAP. They should be able to correct it or make a note in the comments section.

Radio press releases must be submitted in all capitals, and must be thirty seconds or less. Read it out loud and time yourself, or you may find yourself with half an advertisement.

We live in an increasingly connected world, and most of us will have to deal with media in a professional capacity, as writers or in our day jobs. The process can be rocky, but good preparation can help you avoid the most common pitfalls.

Your turn! What experiences have you had with reporters/journalists/talking heads, and how did you make the experience as painless as possible?


27 thoughts on “Details at Eleven

  1. I was caught for a “person on the street” interview twice. Once I declined after I heard what the topic was, because it might put me in conflict with a federal agency (don’t cheeze off the regulatory body the day before you have an appoint with them). The second time I was polite, answered the questions (they were about the local housing market vs. the 2007 crash) and tried to keep my answers short and to the point.

    I have written press releases, but just announcing that on this date that thing is going to happen at that airport and this is the cost to get in. Otherwise I tend to avoid situations that might attract the media.

  2. For my sins, I was on the other side of the microphone as a military reporter (for radio, mostly) for nearly 20 years. A fun job for me; basically we were the in-house public information department for the military. A good few years after retirement, I got inveigled by another military retiree, who I knew as a millblogger in San Antonio, into being the media expert for the local Tea Party, Which for about a year and a half turned out to be a way bigger deal than either of us expected at the onset. We wound up doing a lot of outreach to the local media – TV and newspaper, mostly; and to their credit they were not hostile. And it was a breeze for me, as I was not the least intimidated by cameras, microphones, the studio and all. To me it was — old home.

    One technique that I had developed when I was the program director and had to explain policies and programs to viewers — and used a good few times when I was faced with a slightly hostile interrogator was to answer at great length and in mind-numbing detail … there were certain questions that regularly came up that I could go on for simply HOURS explaining them to people. After one of my lengthier explanations, they were usually sorry for having asked … but I derived a lot of private amusement. And they couldn’t complain that I had not answered the question, after all.

    It’s a great technique, as long as you know your topic down to the sub-atomic level, and it’s fun to watch their eyes start to glaze over …

    1. Your reporting and reported stories sound interesting.

      I was a clerk/reporter for my hometown newspaper for 6 years over 20 years ago, so sat on the inside of the interview as well. I came out with a few observations:

      1) I was a minority as a Conservative, but that did not mean I was without influence with them.
      2) Certain groups came at the media as always the adversary — which made it hard for people in my position to help them get the good publicity when they deserved it.
      3) Treat the reporter as much as a person as possible — it will buy you unexpected grace sometime in the future.
      4) And the more they claim objectivity the higher the reporting bias.

  3. And of course, the most important rule of all: Always wear an awesome Hawaiian shirt covered with alien space babes armed with rayguns when running a comet landing mission.

  4. There’s a lot to be said for the classic “read the previously prepared statement”.

    1. Only if you’re actually making a statement and your audience knows that. People can hear when you’ve rehearsed an answer, and start to wonder what you’re hiding or who told you what to say.

  5. In terms of clothing, the main things to note are 1. Wear solids when possible, but not white, your skin tone*, or red (the last can be difficult for cameras to pick up correctly, so it often makes your skin look off). If patterned, at least have it be a large pattern. Small patterns can create moire effects. 2. Never have bare shoulders. Sleeves are best, but anything that makes you look naked in a closeup is a bad idea. 3. Look well-groomed, whatever that means to you. Nothing makes an audience subconsciously hostile faster than them thinking you look dirty. (Obviously waived if you’re doing flood rescues, firefighting, or infrastructure repair.)

    *Technically, anything that would look like your skin tone in grayscale should be rejected as well. While we no longer have B&W TVs around, there are people who don’t see color and need the contrast to make you look your best.

    1. Is the color and pattern advice still necessary with HD TV? I’ve seen some ties on TV that would have been practically jumping of the person in NTSC that looked fine in HD.

      1. Not all high definition is the same. I think there’s still some 720p out there. Better safe than sorry. (And my mom is still using an analog TV with a converter, so she can’t be the only one.)

        1. All HD has a deeper color space than NTSC. there is no ‘setup’ , so blacks are deeper, and things don’t oversaturate before reaching maximum brightness.

  6. First, ask yourself why you are agreeing to talk to the reporter. What do you have to gain for giving them your time and taking the risk that you will be misrepresented to the public. Second, research the individual reporter and the publication or site. Are they likely to be your friends? Are they going to make you, your company, your product or your cause look good or not?Third, record every word that is exchanged verbally with a reporter. Save the recordings. Make it clear that you are recording the transaction, of course. Save all emails. Ask for a list of questions in advance – you might not get one, but if you do, after you’ve covered the questions on the list you have an excellent reason to end the interview.

    1. “First, ask yourself why you are agreeing to talk to the reporter. What do you have to gain for giving them your time and taking the risk that you will be misrepresented to the public.”

      Well, nowadays it’s because the reporter’s request for an interview is usually phrased something like this: “Hi, I’m writing an article about you / your organization. I’ve talked to three of your worst enemies, and one or two ‘neutral’ organizations like the SPLC, and gotten really good soundbites. If you don’t show up I’l simply publish it tomorrow and note that you were offered the chance to respond but were afraid to appear. What time can I schedule your interview?”

      Your only faint chance for a defense is to arrange to be wired for audio and video so at least you’ll have an unedited record to use later.

  7. Tip from someone who has had to field a few dumbass questions: Reporters, NEVER ask someone at a funeral ‘how do you feel.’ I had visions of my father, who had worked as a journalist in the Marcos era, rising up from his coffin in a fit of curmudgeonly pique to lecture yet another junior reporter that the question was, in of itself, empty, inconsiderate, and gave nothing further in actual news, and of course they are grieving, you blithering moron, that’s obvious! They’re putting on a brave face!

    Alas, it didn’t happen. I had to restrain my desire to do it myself, and be polite. (“Right now, it hasn’t sunk in yet – strange, I know. But it feels like he’s just gone overseas again.”)

    The senior journalists who had been his colleagues and friends threw a party celebrating his life, as he wanted.

    @David Smith – in my case, I was fielding the reporters, Mom was dealing with the government official who was showing respects (Mayor? or a Senator, I don’t remember.) There are some cases where one cannot avoid the presence of, or having to speak to reporters, and the funeral of an incumbent ambassador is one of them. The spouse and the eldest child have certain responsibilities expected of them.

  8. The 3 Pillars of Bad Journalism:


    The odds of surviving all 3 are slim.

  9. Unless it’s a live interview, do ask for retakes if you flub answers or stuff happens. The reporters will do the same if they screw up. Assume the camera is always on and nothing is off record. If the reporter goes off topic or starts down a path you don’t want to go just tell them you aren’t here to talk about that or offer to discuss it another time. Don’t deny the obvious but no need to expand on it.

  10. I’ve dealt with too many reporters at work, and their inability to get the story straight even when given a typed press release, to be cordial with them in my personal life. Unless I’ve personally known them as friends for several years, the only response they’ll get from me on a personal matter will resemble ‘leave me alone frakkin’ organic waste material weasel’. Anything at work gets referred to our designated spokesperson. I think she’s got a list of reporters she won’t take questions from now.

  11. Good article. Might I add a few pointers?

    (1) Know why you are talking to a reporter. It’s not to answer the reporter’s questions or make yourself look good in print or in front of a camera. The only reason ever for talking to a reporter is to get your message across to a wider audience. Period, full stop.

    (2) Which brings me to point 2. Always always always have a message objective. And it needs to be a positive one. What can be positive about a tragedy? Here’s one example: “We want to find out what happened so this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.”

    (3) Always bring your message objectives into your answers, no matter what the question is. The hard part is doing it in such a way as to not look like you’re dodging the question. Practice with other people helps a lot.

    (4) Everything else is technique.

  12. and I’ve basically been the reporter who had to translate press releases into stories…

    and had an editor who insisted i couldn’t copy a bullet point list of new software features from a press release because it would be plagiarism. Yes, I had to reword every bullet point.

    1. I take it your editor never heard the terms “bibliography” or “footnotes” or “citations”.

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