You hope the strong news release you have worked so hard to polish will generate media interest and inquiries. But if it does, and if your spokespeople aren’t prepared for the media, your best effort can get derailed in a hurry.
Before a major news release is distributed, two meetings, lasting a total of about an hour, should be held with your chief spokespeople. The first session is on media etiquette and it is for anyone, at any level, who may be placed in front of the press. During this phase, you should talk everyone through these 21 tips that, if followed, can optimize your media opportunity or, if ignored, can ruin it. I itemize and explain these points below. The second session, in this order, should be the asking and answering – and follow-up – of the world’s wickedest questions that a really smart or aggressive media person might ask about your news. Perhaps in a subsequent post, a little guidance on how to identify these questions and how to role play without getting fired will be offered.
But let’s move on to the list of Do’s and Don’ts.
1. Beware the ‘Empty Air’ Media Technique
The French have an expression, un ange passe, that literally translated means ‘an angel is passing.’ It is used to describe that awkward silence that sometimes occurs, for example, at a dinner party when by coincidence everyone stops talking at once. What’s relevant about this is that experienced media people know that CEOs and other corporate spokespeople abhor a vacuum. So a clever reporter will ask a question, get the answer, and then say nothing for what seems like a long, long time. It’s usually just a few seconds, but it seems eternal. Too often when this happens, your spokesperson starts talking again, adding more to the previous answer, or changing it, and sometimes divulging way more than is appropriate. Advise your spokespeople to answer the question and resist the temptation to fill dead air.
2. Lesser Media Figures Often Grow Up to Be Big Time Media Figures
Inevitably you will get a call from a newly-minted or novice reporter, often representing an outlet that is not in your tier one. You can blow it off, but you probably shouldn’t. Here’s a real life example why: Years ago in Texas a lowly reporter for a daily newspaper started poking around a major semiconductor company asking some hard questions and writing some articles the company found objectionable. Determining that the reporter was from a local paper with a limited reach, as the story goes, they decided the best thing to do would be to just ignore the guy: take no more questions; grant no more interviews. However, that reporter went on to cover the technology beat for The New York Times. Ouch, right? Lesson to be learned here: be nice to newbies.
3. Don’t Ask When Your Story Will be Published
Most traditional reporters don’t have control over when, or even if, a story will be published. They can’t answer the question, but the issue is more complicated than that. To ask ‘when’ is to assume you’ve met the bar for attractive news content. An analogy may help explain this better. An interview is like a date. Asking when your news will be published is like asking at the end of a first date, “When can I expect you’ll be spending the night.”
4. Eye Contact and Frequent Use of the Writer’s First Name
Obviously, the eye contact rule is for face-to-face meetings. This is a hard one, by the way. It’s not that it is so difficult to understand the importance of eye contact, but it can be very awkward having to tell a spokesperson, especially a superior, that they need to do this. Let’s face it… people with eye contact problems can have other issues, yes? But in fact, no one has ever fired me for saying it when it needed to be said, but it can be awkward. Easier to convey is that spokespeople should use the writer’s first name more often than what seems normal. Media types won’t love me for saying this, but it is true for them as with all people, that hearing our own name somehow snaps us back into more conversational alertness. No, I can’t explain how that works, but it works.
5. Tell Your Spokespeople to Make Sure They Understand the Question
Everyone’s had that experience from time to time that they don’t really know what someone is asking them. In press interviews, if this feeling comes over you or your spokesperson, it is far better to say, “I’m not sure what you are asking me. Could you rephrase that?” Here’s a good example to help you remember this rule. I’ve used this story in front of CEOs and it has helped them. Johnny, a young boy, asks his father, “Dad, where did I come from?” That’s bad grammar but Johnny’s Daddy got the question, he thought, and launched into a long talk about male and female intimacy, the miracle of life, and the natural biological order of things. At the end, a perplexed Johnny said, “Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about. My friend Eddie says he is from New Hampshire. Am I from New Hampshire, too?”
6. Beware the Hidden Sequence of Questions
Few really good reporters are going to come right out and ask you a question they know you won’t answer. For example, “What will your revenues be next year?” or “What are your growth projections for the coming fiscal year?” No one in their right mind at either a private or public company is going to answer those straight up. To get around this some experienced writers will get to the bottom of this through a series of questions they ask in between a bunch of unrelated questions. They might ask, for example, about your distribution systems and supply chain partners and want to know how many you have. A little later, after several unrelated questions, they may ask about field quotas for the various regions. More time passes and they may ask something like this, “I suppose like most companies, you impose huge quota increases year over year?” Few CEOs will let that go because how do you keep the sales reps you have, and get new ones, if the word on the street is that quotas go through the roof every year. Anyway, you see where this is going, right? With enough data points, a good writer can connect the dots and get to some fairly reasonable estimates… and will have your spokesperson’s own words in support of the estimates.
7. Give the Overwhelmed Reporter a Gracious Way to Admit to Utter Confusion
At anytime, but especially if a reporter’s eyes start to glaze over, train your spokespeople to say something like, “Am I making any sense here?” or “Have I been clear on this point?” You do this because in my experience reporters, especially new ones, are reluctant to admit they don’t know what in the world you’re saying. By asking if you have been clear, you put the responsibility for the confusion back on you rather than them. It is much easier for a reporter to say you haven’t been clear than to say he or she isn’t getting it.
8. Take a Few Minutes Getting to Know the Reporter and Gauge What They Know
First of all, as much as you’re trying to sell a news story to a reporter, you’re trying to form a relationship on some level that may prove useful in the future. Plus, people like it when others show an interest in who they are as people. You may not always think so, but reporters are people, too. So spending a couple of minutes up front in conversation unrelated to your news is useful. Ask how they got in to the business. Ask them if they like it. Ask them where they trained. Ask them any appropriate question that helps you know them better. Then, at the very start of the Q&A with them, you should have the first Q and it should be: How familiar are you with our company/product/service, etc. Their answer will help you keep from talking down to them or talking way over their heads. One last tip in this regard: you should read anything you can get your hands on of recent vintage from the reporter. Reading what they’ve written will illuminate their style, depth, intelligence, and sometimes even some biases they may have. Yes, reporters have biases. It is just that some show them and some don’t. It is best to know that in advance.
9. Take Notes
Here’s a low-tech suggestion with a high-value return. During media interviews, someone should be in the room with your spokesperson whether they are meeting a reporter face-to-face or over the phone. The reasons for this is different in each case. Reporters won’t like me saying this, but in face-to-face meetings, if someone else is taking notes like they are, it has been my experience the reporter takes better, more careful notes, too. Well, I can’t actually know that because you shouldn’t really try reading a reporter’s notes. I guess I’m saying that interview outcomes have been better in general when I’ve taken notes during an interview with my spokespeople. I’ve never had a reporter object to this practice. Even if you’re hearing your spokesperson saying the same thing over and over in repetitive interviews, take notes. For phone calls, the reason you take notes is because the actual spokesperson probably won’t and it is very hard after the fact to remember every question and answer. Your spokesperson is also typically so focused on saying the right thing, he or she won’t always be sure how the interview went. With good notes, even if you only heard one side of the conversation, you can review the answers and fine tune them.
10. Know Who You’re Talking To and Who Their Audience Is
This may seem obvious but it is in here because it happens too often. Your spokesperson needs to know, and use, the correct name of the writer and should be aware of that writer’s chief audience. You can’t change your basic news story from interview to interview, of course, but you can lead with a different emphasis in each interview. For example, if you’re talking to a reporter from a consumer magazine, lead with the consumer implications of your news. If it is a business daily, lead with the business implications. It is even OK to say something such as, “Given your audience of consumers, your chief interest in this news will probably be that…” This takes some practice and some advance thinking. Too many spokespeople want to know what the one pitch is and they want to give it the same way, with the same emphasis, to everyone. You’ll get better results if you tailor your delivery a bit to reflect the reporter’s interest in his or her primary audience.
11. The Sound of Keyclicks in the Background is a Good Thing
These days many reporters take notes on their computer while talking to a source by phone. Most of the time you can hear their typing going on in the background. It is a little distracting, but it is a good thing. Reporters don’t take a lot of notes for stories they don’t plan to write. But listen to the keystroke pace and if the clicks continue long after you’ve finished a sentence, slow down. The writer is having trouble keeping up.
12. Almost Always There’s No Such Thing as ‘Off-the-Record”
Unless you have exceptional contacts that you know from long experience you can trust to keep things off the record, say nothing that you wouldn’t want to see in print. I’ve had experiences during which the spokesperson has said, “This is off the record, but…” The writer often nods in some way that seems to imply an agreement on that point, only to find the off-the-record stuff in the newspaper the next day.
13. Don’t Bite When a Writer Says That a Third Party Said Something Awful About You
This doesn’t happen that often, but you should be aware of it. Here’s how it goes: The writer says, “Joe Jones at Hit and Run, Inc. says you’re new product doesn’t actually work yet.” Here’s the rule: if you or your spokesperson didn’t actually hear this directly or are not 100% confident this ever actually happened, you’re not doing yourself any favors by responding to it. Not to mention, why spend any time using your PR dime to elevate Hit and Run, Inc. in your news.
14. Develop an Ear for Loaded Questions
The most famous loaded question, of course, is ‘When did you stop beating your wife?” The questions assumes something and if you answer it without noting it carries an assumption that isn’t true, you have in a way validated the presumption. Clearly, not all reporters are this heavy-handed. Their loaded questions are more subtle, but dangerous nevertheless. They come in forms like this: “Since you are facing a difficult year ahead and the market for this product is immature, what is your plan to compete effectively, gain share, and earn a good margin on this device?” If you launch immediately into competitive differentiation, market share, and pricing, you’re validating the assertions that you’re facing a terrible year ahead and your market is nascent.
15. Businesses with Any Class Don’t Mix News Talk and Advertising Talk with Writers
Maybe the blogosphere has changed this a bit, but with traditional media, especially, and with the best reporters, an attempt to grease your news with suggestions of ad dollars is offensive. A less credible publication and a less credible writer may go for this sort of thing but no one takes their publication seriously anyway.
16. Writers Compete, Too, So Don’t Rub It in Their Face
Let’s say you’re talking to a writer from The Regional News who hasn’t always given you the best coverage. But the writer at a competing publication called The Real Area News consistently does a good job. The one thing you can do to make sure The Regional News contact never comes around is to coo in his or her presence over the great stories you get from The Real Area News. Not to wear out the dating analogy, but to do this is like telling your Friday night date how great your Thursday night date was with another person.
17. You Can Ask Them Questions, Too, and You Should
Good reporters get around. They talk to a lot of people. In my opinion, I think reporters are actually flattered when you ask them what they’ve been hearing lately; who is hot; who’s not, and what’s the next big thing coming along.
18. A Follow-Up Call or Email is a Good Idea
This is suggested for several reasons. First, you may have promised more information after the interview. If you make this promise, you have to deliver. Two, the reporter may have hit a snag and needs a clarification or more information. Sometimes for a busy reporter a little snag can stall or sidetrack a story. Third, this is a subtle way of keeping a writer tuned in to your story. In other words, the follow up is a reminder that a story was planned.
19. You Don’t Have to Answer Every Question
Sometimes a reporter will ask a question he or she knows most sources will never answer. But they ask anyway. Sometimes they get lucky. Years ago, a common example of this was, “When are you going public?” But there’s an answer to every question. In this case it was usually something such as, “We’re on plan; we’re meeting our own internal milestones; we’re happy with the pace of our business and will take next steps as they are appropriate,” etc etc. The wrong answer is. “How is that any of your business?” or any variation of that hostile theme. It is even better to say, “I give you a lot of credit for asking that, but I’m quite sure you don’t really expect a specific answer.”
20. Thank Them for Their Time and Interest
This is a simply courtesy but you’d be surprised how often it is overlooked. And yet, watch the mainstream media shows on television. Every analyst or other source interviewed by anchors is thanked for coming on and all of the guests say, “Thanks for having me.” Reporting and writing are difficult jobs. A lot of reporters and writers sometimes feel they are held in disdain by corporate people. Most reporters and writers aren’t famous and they don’t make a lot of money. A simple and sincere expression of your appreciation for their time and interest goes a long way and can do much in forming a good ongoing relationship.
21. If You Visit the Media Where They Work…
I was visiting a big media conglomerate on 7th Avenue in New York with a client in tow once. On the way up to the 21st floor, in a jam packed elevator, my client turned to me and asked, “What’s the name of the next jerk we’re meeting?” Nice, huh? The jerk’s colleague was on the same lift. On the way in to, and out of, a media building be quiet. When meeting with the reporter, don’t try to read things on his or her desk upside down. If you’re left alone, don’t snoop. Don’t bring gifts, expensive or otherwise. Most reporters have desk drawers filled up with junk already and most can’t accept gifts of any real value. At a major metropolitan daily I visited, I was not allowed to buy the reporter a cup of coffee from the cafeteria vending machine.
This article, written by Sterling Hager, originally appeared in PR Fuel (https://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (https://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: https://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.
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