Eight Ground Rules When Working With Reporters
One of our recent media training clients told me he refuses to speak with reporters unless they give him approval of the story before it runs.
Another told me her boss surreptitiously tape records interviews with the media in case the reporter “screws” him.
I hear those types of stories more often than you’d think, so today, I’m going to enumerate eight important ground rules you need to know when working with reporters.
1. Don’t Go Off-The-Record: Journalists don’t agree on what the term off-the-record means. One survey found that even journalists working for the same news organization had widely divergent views of what the term actually meant. If journalists themselves can’t agree on the definition, you’re going to get in trouble if you rely on the term to forge an agreement with a reporter. So banish it from your vocabulary entirely. (You can read a more detailed discussion about this topic here.)
2. Never Say No Comment: There is no phrase more damning in a spokesperson’s lexicon than “no comment.” The public regards a person who utters those words the same way they view a person who shouts “I did it!” into a megaphone in a crowded park. That doesn’t mean you have to tell a reporter everything, but it means that you should use the technique of commenting without commenting.
3. You Cannot “Approve” a Story: Many high-powered executives, accustomed to directing subordinates, instruct reporters to send them a draft of their articles before publication. Most reporters will not only reject that request, but will resent that the executive treated them like an employee requiring approval. Journalists have no obligation to share their final story with you, so don’t ask.
4. But You Can Offer to Fact Check a Story: Offering to fact check a story is different than requesting to see a story prior to publication. Whereas asking a reporter to see a story in advance suggests a controlling executive, making yourself available to check an article’s key facts is usually regarded as helpful. They may call you to review a single fact or email you a key section of the article for review.
5. You Can Request Questions In Advance (sometimes): PR pros disagree on whether or not it’s appropriate to request questions from reporters in advance (see the debate here). I’d avoid asking the major news outlets for the questions, but reporters working for smaller news organizations, soft trade publications, or the entertainment press are often willing to share their questions with you prior to an interview.
6. You Can Tape The Interview: You may consider taping your raw interviews with reporters, especially if you expect it to be hostile. I generally advise against recording more straightforward interviews, since taping can create a defensive environment before you even get started. Many states require you to notify the other party that you are recording, so check the law in your state – or better yet, just tell the reporter you’re recording.
7. You Can Limit The Time of The Interview: Limiting the time of an interview can help you prevent the conversation from turning into a harmful fishing expedition. If you believe a reporter is primarily interested in digging for dirt, tell the reporter you’d love to talk, but only have a fifteen minute window available. Although this can be a useful tool in certain situations, make it a rare exception to the rule, not your standard operation procedure.
8. You Can Declare Certain Topics Off-Limits: But I wouldn’t. Reporters often disclose such agreements to their audience, and that disclosure will probably make you look guilty. It’s far better to receive media training so you can handle any question gracefully, even the unexpected question from “left field.”
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These are valuable points. Here are a few additions to the discussion.
Request questions in advance: I don’t believe this is a good move. It sounds defensive to the reporter. Besides, the boss should be trained well enough to answer questions with “bridging” phrases and provide the information s/he wants to convey.
In addition to limiting the interview time, plan an “escape” option. Have someone enter the room and say, or give a note, that an issue has come up that needs his/her involvement. S/he can break off the interview at that time, or continue if all is going well.
Thank you for adding to the conversation. I agree with you regarding requesting questions in advance, despite the fact that industry trends seem to be moving in the opposite direction. As for the escape option, I’m wondering how that would look to the audience. I suppose it could work well if executed flawlessly, but I can also see how it could easily backfire. As an example, check out this police chief being “saved” by the fire chief – it looks pretty lousy: https://www.throughlinegroup.com/index.php/2010/09/02/hostage-press-conference-losing-control/.
I haven’t tried the escape option before. Have you, and if so, how has it worked? I’d love to hear your lessons learned on that one!
Thanks again for commenting, and please don’t be a stranger.
Is it OK to reprint the article, 8 Ground rules when working with reporters, in our professional magazine, Practicing Communicating?
Please contact me through our email address, Contact@MrMediaTraining.com. I’d like to learn a bit more.
I find it lazy when PR people repeatedly ask me for questions before an interview. First, I almost never prepare formal, written questions. To do so just for their sake would take time I just don’t have. Second, it tells me your exec or spokesperson isn’t up to speed on the product or launch or isn’t prepared enough to answer the questions that will be put forth. Unless its an in-depth story on a company, I think people should be able to answer straight-forward industry and product-related questions. And no, they cannot view and approve the piece in advance.
Thank you for your comment. First, I generally agree with your position, particularly if the interview is about an “everyday” topic. Still, I do think asking for questions in advance has its place, especially if I’m setting up an interview with a spokesperson about a technical topic. If the reporter is going to ask detailed technical questions that the spokesperson might not have memorized, it usually serves everyone best if the spokesperson can track down the details prior to an interview.
I very much appreciate you reading the blog, and hope you’ll visit (and comment) again.
P.S. Totally agree with you on the “cannot view and approve the piece in advance” piece. It always shocks me that spokespersons have the audacity to ask.
I would add remember that reporters want a story that the public will attend to, and depending on the media, and the integrity of the reporter, the final version can range from being an accurate story to one that has been sensationalized. Now don’t misunderstand I’m not saying fictionalized, but sensationalized where emphasis of what you said can changed so it makes for a story more people are likely to read (find entertaining).
I agree with most of your rules but I don’t entirely agree with your off-the-record taboo.
I was a reporter and producer for twenty years, starting at the Muami Herald but most of my career was as a police or investigative reporter at the major market and network levels. I transitioned to PR fifteen years ago and led the media training team at AT&T, for example, and own my own agency where we deal with the top media on some very sensitive topics.
I do agree that many journalists have different definitions of off-the-record or on-background. So you need to establish those definitions before the interview.
However, if done right, using those tactics correctly are invaluable for building relationships and getting information placed for your purposes. In most cases, there are legal issues to consider but your strategy can be worked out with the legal dept.
All the angles are too lengthy to discuss here – all that said, if you are inexperienced or doing a simple interview there is probably no reason to get tricky.
Thank you very much for your comment. I agree with your point entirely.
The “don’t go off the record” advice is a good generalized rule for the majority of media interactions, particularly those involving novice spokespersons. But as you rightly indicated, there are exceptions to every rule. I recently covered this issue on the blog, asking readers to weigh in on when it’s appropriate to go on background or off the record with reporters. You can find that follow-up post here: https://www.throughlinegroup.com/index.php/2012/01/30/when-to-go-on-background-with-a-reporter/.
Thank you very much for reading and for taking the time to comment.
Can we please clarify that THERE IS NO SUCH THING as OFF THE RECORD. It doesn’t exist!
If you say it it can be published/broadcast…
Hi Mr Media Trainer,
Thanks for the helpful tips. I’ve had a difficult time with some media persons on the “off the record”. Frankly, I do not believe in it. If you don’t intend saying it, then don’t say it.
I wish to check with you on the ethics of publishing a media response to more than the persons that enquired. This is in a case of apparent collusion between members of the political opposition and the media.
Thank you very much for your kind comment and good question. I’ve written a blog post in response to your question, and will post it to the blog in early February. I hope that helps.
Thank you for reading!
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