Why You Shouldn't Educate Reporters

My firm has offices in New York City and Washington, DC, so I frequently take the train between the two cities. On one such trip, I overheard a PR professional speaking to a colleague.

“The reporter from the Philadelphia Daily News completely blew the story,” she said, clearly infuriated. “I talked to him forever, and he totally missed the point!”

I immediately wondered whether the problem was that she had said too much—and by doing so, might have obscured her message.

Too often, media spokespersons fall victim to the “tell them everything you know” syndrome. They wrongly believe that their primary role in an interview is to provide the reporter with an in-depth education instead of remembering that their main goal is to influence the story and get the quotes they want.

Sure, providing reporters with the information they need in order to file a story is an important part of your job as a spokesperson. But the more detail you provide, the more likely a secondary or tertiary point will make its way into the story instead of a primary one.

Put another way, a media interview isn’t about downloading your knowledge—it’s about prioritizing your knowledge. As we tell our clients, the more you say, the more you stray.

I’ll be even a bit more provocative here: Your main task as a spokesperson isn’t to give the reporter facts. If you merely spout facts, you’ll be no more valuable than a Wikipedia entry. Your job is to give those facts context and meaning.

When speaking to print reporters in person, you’ll probably observe them furiously scribbling notes in a small notepad. In order to capture everything, they usually write in big, barely legible characters and flip the pages at an almost manic pace. By the end of the interview, reporters may have dozens of pages of notes.

If you remain focused on your most critical points, you will help reporters prioritize. They may walk away with 12 pages of notes, but your clarity will make it easy for them to immediately identify your three most important themes. That doesn’t guarantee they’ll use them—but it dramatically increases the probability they will.

Alternatively, if you’re not focused enough, you will give the reporter 12 pages’ worth of random, unprioritized thoughts from which to choose. If you’re fortunate enough to get the quote you wanted, it would be due more to luck than design.

There’s an easy way to know if you’re abandoning your main messages. If you ever say the following phrases during an interview (or anything similar), you’ve probably wandered pretty far off message:

  • “Oh, by the way…”
  • “Incidentally…”
  • “As an aside…”
  • “That reminds me of something else…”

I suspect that’s where the woman on the train went wrong. As she said, she “talked to him forever,” almost certainly meaning her answers were unprioritized. She likely gave the reporter 12 pages’ worth of unfocused notes, forcing him to choose what to include. And, as usually happens in that circumstance, she was unhappy with the result.

She forgot that her primary job was not to educate but to prioritize.

This article is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available from Amazon here and for the Kindle here.