Whether you're following up on that newsworthy press release for which you just hit "Send" or doing a bit of damage control for your company, follow these six tips when speaking to a reporter:
Consider the source.
All professions have their share of good, bad and mediocre, and journalism is no different. And with the explosion of mobile technology and social media, anybody who can tweet, blog or post can call him/herself a journalist, put something out on the web in the morning and, by noon, receive 100,000 hits. This means that it's important to find out with whom you are talking at an individual level, company level and even parent company level. Read, listen or watch their clips. Ask questions, get to know them, and you'll better know what to expect and how to react.
You would prepare these for any public speech, right? When you talk to the press, you are doing exactly that. Jot down and prioritize key points you want to make and a few catchy, key phrases that can drive home the message and serve as good quotes. Remember, it's better to sound authentic than to read from a written statement, unless you are responding to a crisis (in which case you may want to read it word for word). An even better solution in a crisis? Send your response in an e-mail.
"On the record."
The rule about what is "on the record" is difficult for journalists, let alone the public, to grasp. Generally, reporters consider public figures or media savvy individuals to be "on the record.” Some top-level journalists and news organizations will not permit interviews to be conducted "off the record," while others use it as a confidence-building measure or to gather background information ("on background" is another industry term that we'll cover another day). The takeaway? Assume you are "on the record" unless you specifically ask to go "off the record," and the journalist agrees. Even then, take into account the professional style and experience level of the reporter and assume anything you say could end up in the public realm, which leads us to our next tip…
Read it back, please.
Before beginning the interview, ask the journalist to read back any specific quotes they might want to use at the end of the interview. This cues the reporter to take excellent notes and ensures you get a second chance to check the tone and accuracy of your quotes. For print interviews, it is often acceptable to amend your statement slightly, inserting a word here or there.
Tell me about the story, please.
A reporter will usually give you an elevator speech on what the article is about, but not always. If possible, ask a few questions of your own: What's the story about? Where and when might it run? Where do I fit in? Knowing these details makes it easier to decide how you frame your comment or participation in the story.
People are people.
Take seriously the saying, "Behind a keyboard, a journalist has no friends." That doesn't mean you can't form professional relationships (and sometimes personal ones) based on mutual respect. After all, journalists are people, too. You both have at least that in common.