Tips for Handling Reporters

People who probably never thought they would be giving an interview to a news reporter, may someday soon find themselves facing a camera and microphone or a phone call from a print journalist on deadline. Before you gulp and say “no comment,” a request for an interview is not always indicative or adversarial or negative circumstances. Even in what may be a crisis situation for you, the media offers the opportunity to reach a vast audience with your own words and images.

  • Don’t use jargon. Every industry or profession has its own unique language. Remember who your targeted audience is, and communicate in language they will understand. Your audience may not understand about risk assessment or cost benefit analysis or regulatory relief legislation, but they do understand issues that hit them personally.
  • Don’t say “no comment.” It implies confirmation of the question. “Commissioner Smith says you discriminated against Mr. Jones.” You reply, “No comment.” The audience interprets that as guilt or a cover-up. The rule of thumb for responding is to explain why you can’t respond and then offer other useful information. “I can’t respond directly to that because it would violate my tenant’s right to privacy (or whatever the reason is); however, what I can tell you is that we have an outstanding public record in this area that we’re proud of, and our clients tell us that they’re very satisfied with our responsiveness and attention to their needs.”
  • Be pro-active. Just responding to queries isn’t enough. Suggest story ideas to reporters. Help them understand the issues and how they affect the interests of the general public.
  • Be careful of how you use numbers. They are confusing to the listener unless you help the audience to understand what the numbers mean. Why are the numbers significant? Is it a trend? Are things better or worse? Use an analogy to help the listener grasp the significance of the numbers.
  • Be relentlessly and aggressively positive about your position. It’s easy to fall into a defensive position. Your job is to use the media opportunity to sell your position or ideas -- not apologize for them!
  • Look at the question as a jumping-off point, not as a set of limiting parameters. Most people only answer the question. They don’t see the question as an opportunity to articulate an agenda.
  • Tell anecdotes. Since the beginning of time, the most effective communicators have been storytellers. Learn how to illustrate your point with an example or anecdote which helps the listener to visualize and empathize with your position. Help the listener to identify with your anecdote.
  • Use your clients as testimonials. Look outside you own organization for third party validation. These testimonials broaden your group of trained spokespersons. Trained and well-briefed individuals who can give compelling interviews should be promoted to the media as industry experts capable of discussing a wide range of timely topics. Although they may be called on by the media to respond to a specific issue, such as a proposed change in a local ordinance, the well-trained spokesperson also promotes the professionalism and role of the community.

Rebecca Dunn Shaw
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