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?