When A Reporter Knows Too Much

I know, that title sounds ominous, like something you might find in a Joe Pesci movie or Mario Puzo novel. But that gloomy tone is appropriate for today’s article, which focuses on what to do when a reporter knows factual information that you simply can’t confirm.

For this week’s question of the week, I asked the following:

“What do you do when a reporter knows true information about your company or organization – but you’re unable to confirm it?
Perhaps the journalist has heard about an upcoming merger or major staff change. Maybe somebody tipped the reporter off to an impending legal settlement or a confidential deal struck between two rival parties. Or possibly somebody inside your organization leaked an internal document to the reporter.
But for many reasons, you’re unable to confirm the information – doing so might scuttle the deal, breach a confidentiality agreement, or undercut the media announcement you’ve been planning for months.”

I heard from a few of you about this off-line but not on-line (there’s still time to comment below!). Since I’ve had to deal with this situation before, here are four of my suggestions:

Question Man

1. Determine Your Priority: Ask yourself what really is most important – maintaining the confidential information, or maintaining a positive, open relationship with the journalist. That’s not always an easy answer, but it’s worth contemplating before considering one of the next three options.

2. Negotiate: In some cases, you may be able to negotiate the timing of the story by offering the reporter something in return, such as access to the main players or key details.

I’ve used this tactic numerous times before, and it often works well. Reporters are often willing to engage in this kind of horse trading since it benefits both parties – they get a more complete story as an exclusive, and you get to control the timing so it doesn’t undermine confidential work.

3. Beat The Reporter: Beat the reporter to the finish line by releasing the story before the reporter can. Although that may mean rushing your timing and settling for a less-than-ideal media strategy, it also may allow you to get the story out on your own terms.

This works especially well for controversial topics, when a reporter’s version of events might be decidedly negative. Your version of events will almost always be kinder than that of an investigative reporter’s, and you can occasionally help influence the day one storyline by offering the story to other journalists first. But beware: If you do this with an influential journalist, you’re probably going to be punished for it in future coverage.

4. Determine Reporter’s Ability to Verify The Story: In some cases, the reporter cannot run the story without your confirmation. Try to analyze the quality of the reporter’s source. If the reporter is unlikely to be able to run the story without your participation, you don’t need to comment. Instead, you can simply “comment without commenting.”

In addition, analyze whether the reporter has a key fact wrong. Even if the reporter has the story 90 percent right, you can truthfully say something such as, “I can’t confirm your story, because discussing any ongoing negotiations can compromise a deal. What I can tell you is you don’t have your facts quite right, and you will publish incorrect information if you go with the story as you have it.”

I’d caution you not to be too cute here – if the reporter has a totally inconsequential fact wrong, you’ll lose credibility if you use this approach. And to be sure, this is a risky tactic. You may be in trouble if you guess wrong and the story is published without your participation. But media relations firms occasionally consider this tactic since it works well in specific cases, and it’s worthy of your consideration in extreme circumstances.
Related: Why There’s No Such Thing As An “Official” Interview
Related: Should You Ask Reporters For Their Questions Before an Interview?