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The Dangers of “Third-Party” Public Relations

Whether you’re a pundit, an expert, an analyst, or a third party, it’s important to remember that you rarely know all the facts. The media does not care about this; they just want a quote and a public relations contact to attribute it to. The juicier the sound bites you offer, the better for journalists, but not necessarily for you. Here is a handy guide for offering your opinion about issues when you as a third party commentator:

1. When asked for your opinion, make sure you understand exactly what the story is about.

A few months ago, I got a call from a journalist who was looking for a comment from me about zoning issues in my neighborhood. A friend of the journalist told him that I lived in the neighborhood and may be up on the topic, so the call was not a total shock. I asked the journalist what the story was about, thinking initially that it had to do with a recent debate over whether to re-zone an industrial area. I was surprised to find that the story was about re-zoning a residential area to allow commercial use.

I declined to comment because I wasn’t aware of the issue and I did not want to make a knee-jerk comment about something I had no information about (other than what the journalist told me). When the story hit a few days later, I learned a lot more about the issue than the journalist had told me and I was happy to have declined the opportunity to comment because I would have sounded uninformed.

2. Don’t just be a cheerleader.

A third-party commentator should come off as someone with informed, but unattached, opinions. Yes, it’s OK to state your feelings, but if you come off too strong, it leaves people wondering what you have at stake. I learned this lesson the hard way when making negative comments about a certain retailer to the Wall Street Journal. My comments were so overtly negative, and spiteful in one instance, that I started receiving emails from shareholders of the retailer accusing me of being on the take.

The key in most cases is to be dispassionate. State the facts that you know and your opinion. You don’t need to add an exclamation point.

3. Admit when you don’t know it all.

If you don’t know anything, don’t say anything. Politely decline to comment on the matter.

4. Qualify your remarks.

Several years ago, I was writing a story about how the media was preparing to cover the U.S. invasion of Iraq. One of the elements of the story I wanted to explore was how the average U.S. citizen would follow the news. I did a canvass of my neighborhood to do person-on-the-street interviews. The best sound bites I received were from people who qualified their remarks by giving me additional information.

One interview subject told me her son was in the infantry, and that she would be following coverage to get news about his specific unit. Another interview subject told me that he had organized anti-war protests and that he wasn’t sure how he would react to the media coverage. A third interview subject told me his wife is Iraqi and that he supported a U.S. invasion. By giving me additional information, these people added weight to their opinion.

5. Remember why you’re being asked for comment.

Is your opinion being sought because you’re an expert? An analyst? A competitor? Someone in the industry? Or simply because a reporter ran into you on the street? Whatever the reason, tailor your comments appropriately.

If you are representing your company, do so in a professional manner. If you are representing yourself, don’t let your one quote in The New York Times be, “It’s the end of an era.” That was my first quote in the paper, and for two years it annoyed me that I was on-the-record in the world’s most influential newspaper with a lame cliche.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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