Question: I hate talking to reporters. You just never know how they might use your words against you. Is there a good way to avoid talking to them without sounding like an ass?
Brian Hickey: An interview with a reporter is not a conversation. It is a negotiation that has the appearance of a conversation. If you’re willing to speak to a reporter, it’s because the reporter affords access to something you want (i.e., visibility in a public forum) for which you are willing to exchange something the reporter wants (i.e., information). Understand how reporters work, what they’re looking for, and how to plan and deliver your messages. In other words, manage the interview. Every interaction is a chance to build a productive, sustainable relationship.
Rumors aside, the majority of reporters are not out to “get” you. Indeed, younger reporters, especially those at niche industry publications, will appreciate your willingness to summarize a complex topic. (Fact: Every senior writer at Fortune or The Wall Street Journal began as a lowly beat reporter somewhere.)
You’ll avoid some common potholes by remembering a few basic rules of the road: Don’t criticize a reporter over a dumb question; don’t speak “off the record”; don’t talk to fill silences; avoid casual speculation. Do speak plainly; take your time answering questions; learn the art of bridging and transitions; be patient, calm and enthusiastic.
Most important: Be the expert. Answer what you can appropriately answer, and offer to help find out what you don’t know and can share.
Brian Hickey is a Vice President at Walek & Associates, an award-winning, New York-based public relations firm focused on professional and financial services. Prior to his work on the agency side of the business, Hickey was global director of communications and media relations for Orrick.
Jim Jarrell: Successful lawyers recognize the value of establishing and maintaining good press relationships; some even hire media advisers to tout their expertise and availability. In today’s editorial environment, news stories are inevitably portrayed with a hero and a villain, so exercising control over your press interactions is imperative.
Remain calm and unaffected when a reporter calls your office or tracks you down at the courthouse. Before agreeing to speak, agree up front about the precise topic you will discuss and stay on topic. Inquire about editorial deadlines and insist on setting up a time when it’s more convenient for you to speak, giving you time to consider what you will say. During the interview, don’t be afraid to pause before answering and choose your words carefully. In fact, you might consider using the politician’s approach: saying what you want regardless of the question. This way, you control the direction of the conversation while also demonstrating a willingness to speak.
If a response is simply out of the question, be specific about why you cannot comment, and recognize that simply saying “no comment” may be construed as an avoidance tactic that will not paint a flattering picture of you or your client.
Jim Jarrell is a Business & Corporate Development Representative for Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co., LPA, in Cleveland, where he is responsible for firm-wide strategy for responding to client requests for proposals and information, developing pitch presentations and coordinating marketing plans for several of the firm’s practice groups.
Ryan King: Congrats, the media wants you as a source. Preparation helps avoid “sounding like an ass” and its evil twin, “foot-in-mouth.” First, establish the mindset of treating the media like a client. This is a business development opportunity.
- Prepare. Create message points demonstrating your knowledge. These should provide a factual, high-level illustration of the issue, with supporting points as necessary, and a key takeaway for the audience. Message points help deliver responses in sound-bites, which enable accuracy. Remember to spell your name for the reporter. Speak with a relaxed cadence and pause between making key points. An interview is a conversation, not an auction where the reporter yells “Sold!” at the end.
- No comment. Don’t say “no comment.” Instead, be honest and transition to a key message. For example, “I can’t comment on that; however, what’s important is [key message].” If pressed, calmly let the reporter know what you can offer.
- Recap. If asked “Is there anything else …” seize the opportunity to reinforce messages and recap the conversation. This helps ensure accuracy for both the interviewer and interviewee.
- Be gracious. Thank reporters for their time and contacting you. Invite them to connect in the future. Ultimately, it’s all about a relationship.
Ryan King has the unique experience of having worked in-house, in the media and in a PR agency. Currently, he leads and manages the public and media relations for Ogletree Deakins and the firm’s 42 offices. Additionally, Ryan develops the strategy and execution for the firm’s social media presence.
That’s a Good Question! What’s Yours?
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