Handling the media: Business boom or doom
Effective media relations can make the difference.
It is 3:30 in the afternoon and you are trying to finish a project for a cherished, long time customer who is expecting final delivery within the next hour. You are working diligently while your staff is very busy with other projects; each and every one must be completed before the end of the business day.
The tension is high, but could be worse. Not just because of the speed in which the work needs to be done, but also because you have a basketball game to coach that evening, two of your best employees have family obligations that have been on the calendar for weeks, and the rest of the staff is anxious to head out and finish their holiday shopping.
All is going well and it really looks like you will win the race to meet all of the business obligations before the end of the day.
Then the phone rings. Bob yells from the front of the shop that Rudolph Roomermungerstern from the local paper is on the phone. Rudy is a local legend in his own mind — publisher and editor of the town’s newspaper that has been in his family for eight generations. Local lore has it that the first edition was printed on the Mayflower. Rudy, however, wears other hats, too, like gossip columnist and the community’s lone certified professional pest.
Calls from Rudy aren’t necessarily viewed as invitations to join his family for egg nog and holiday caroling. Nevertheless, as townsfolk say, it could be worse. At least the call isn’t from Mike or Morley at 60 Minutes.
So what do you do?
- Take the call from Rudy knowing it will cut into the time you need to do the job right.
- Tell Bob to take the call from Rudy, knowing it will cut into Bob’s time to get the work on his plate out (plus you never know what Bob will tell Rudy).
- Tell Bob to tell Rudy you will call back later (never really defining whether later is that evening or sometime in 2008).
- Put Rudy on hold for five minutes at which time the phone line goes mysteriously dead and pray he doesn’t call back.
As much as you may want to elude Rudy, his newspaper is the most influential media within 25 miles of your business and he is the most powerful person in the newsroom (he may be the only person in the newsroom). However, what he writes and is circulated through the community will have an impact—positive or negative—on you and your business.
Rudy is a force with which you must contend—good or bad, right or wrong. He who owns the printing press wins. Your community is Rudy’s stadium and he prints the scorecard and announces the game. Furthermore, if he doesn’t care for the way the umps are calling balls and strikes, or even the way the pitcher parts his hair, he can take second base and go home. Game over. The score doesn’t matter. He owns the bases and while he makes his way home to a smiling dog and a six pack of Falstaff, you are standing on the dirt where second base used to be, frozen in time and place, wondering what the heck just happened.
Worse yet, you wake up tomorrow morning to Rudy’s recount of the game wondering if you and he were even in the same county. Rudy has a penchant for not letting the facts get in the way of the story.
Most businesses and business owners will deal with the media at some point during the life of the business or the span of their personal career. For most people, it is an intimidating experience. Large companies usually have policies and procedures prescribing the corporate code of conduct for dealing with the media. Moreover, they usually have dedicated, trained spokespeople who can speak to the media. Even in situations where an untrained representative from a large company must talk to the press, they are prepped for the situation and accompanied by a corporate public relations professional.
Small and medium-size companies generally do not have such policies and procedures. Owners and managers of entrepreneurial companies, for the most part, are not trained to handle media inquiries. Nevertheless, a single mis-step in the process could result in doom for your business. Handled properly, however, effective management of the media could result in a boom for your business.
Here are some guidelines for becoming sensitive to the importance of effective media relations and thoughts about how your business can benefit from media exposure.
Start with the phone call from Rudy. How should it be handled?
Either you can take the call, find out what Rudy is up to, ask what his deadline is, let him know you want to respond and tell him it is better you two talk when it is more convenient for both of you (assuming Rudy has some flexibility with his deadline). Or, Bob can take the call, find out his questions, and let Rudy know he will pass them on to you with the intention of getting back to him before his deadline. Bob then relays the information to you.
In either case, you have created “air” or a buffer in which you put time between understanding what the media is looking for and when you must respond. The time gives you an opportunity to think about the questions, formulate your responses and prepare for the follow-up discussion or interview.
While this may be a simplification of the process, it is a general guideline.
Not responding is generally not an option. Neither is use of the terms “Off the record” or “No comment.”
There is no such thing as “off the record.” If you do not want to see it in print, hear it on the radio or television, be directed to it in a Web site or find it in a blog, don’t say it!!!!!!
As for “no comment,” that is a negative affirmative. Saying so implies confirmation of the reporters supposition or suspicion. This is not particularly healthy when dealing with the media, if not THE court of public opinion, certainly a dominant influence.
As large or small as your organization may be, consider becoming sensitive to the media and having at least some simple policies and procedures in place to guide staff and protect you and your business.
RECOMMENDED PROCEDURES FOR RESPONDING TO MEDIA INQUIRIES
Relationships with the “press” are important to enhancing your company’s reputation. In the event you are contacted by a representative of the media and asked to comment on a specific news event or be interviewed for a general story, a business owner or appointed company representative must be contacted for approval prior to responding to any media inquiries.
The specific procedure follows:
- Should you be contacted by telephone, e-mail, fax, letter or even via personal contact, politely obtain the media representative’s name, the media outlet he or she is representing, the nature of the story, the deadline and phone number and / or e-mail address. Let them know that either you or another representative will get back to them within a reasonable timeframe.
- Immediately alert the business owner or appointed representative before agreeing to participate. If neither is available, contact your supervisor or next highest ranking business representative. A decision then will be made about participating in the interview and the subsequent coordination with the media representative, including advanced preparation and follow through.
The purpose of media sensitivity and formal training is to help you prepare effectively for interviews and help you truly “win” in interview situations. Thee mission is to enhance your ability to:
- Clearly define your views on issues that affect your business or industry.
- Develop better working relations with members of the media.
- Face interviews with increased confidence and control.
- Assure that your message is communicated with as little editing as possible.
The most important lesson you can learn from media sensitivity and training is that interviewing is not a passive experience. You must set an agenda for the interview and communicate it effectively to the reporter.
One of the secrets to successful interviewing is preparation. Do your homework. Decide what points must be communicated during the interview. Formulate three or four simple statements and use them throughout the interview. Be sure you have the basic facts at your disposal, on index cards if necessary. Provide background information to every reporter. Know who is conducting the interview. If the reporter has a reputation for hostile interviews, beware of easy questions designed to lull you into a false sense of security. Never underestimate a reporter. Many will go to great lengths to look and act nonthreatening.
If the interviewer is an expert in your field, do not forget that your answers should be addressed to the general public who may not be as knowledgeable as the reporter. In every interview, assume your audience has zero information on your topic. Be sure to give the basic facts and remember that your job is to inform the public.
Develop a healthy attitude towards interviews. While in many ways it is a straightforward exchange of information between the interviewer and the interviewee, it is also an exercise in control. Your challenge is to define and limit the information offered so that it reflects your views and your industry’s views of issues; so that it is, in short, persuasive in molding public opinion.
THE INTERVIEW PROCESS
- Set an agenda. It should consist of three or four key points that can be stated in one or two sentences. Use the agenda throughout the interview.
- Control the interview. Answer questions posed by the reporter and continue on to the items on your agenda. Do not wait for the interviewer to bring up your topic because it might not happen.
- Tailor your answers to the interview by knowing what will be expected of you and how the interview will be used. Will it be live or taped? Will you be the focus or are you to be included in a larger story?
- Organize the points you want to make, feel free to use index cards if you do not trust your memory.
- Be yourself. Relax and be conversational; an interview is not a speech.
- Play it straight, be truthful. A minor misrepresentation can become a major problem and destroy your credibility.
- Always use simple sentences and sum up a complicated answer in a couple of short sentences.
- Do not use jargon or technical language the audience is unlikely to understand. Interviews with trade press are an exception as reporters and readers are likely to be familiar with your specific industry.
- To give yourself a moment of reflection without allowing an awkward pause, repeat or rephrase the questions before answering. However, do not be afraid to pause. It is better, and often more effective, to speak slowly than to make a mistake in haste.
- If you do not have the answer to the question, offer to check with the appropriate source and advise the interviewer as soon as possible.
- Structure answers with a headline, basic facts and elaborations so that if you are interrupted the most important information is not lost.
- In addressing a loaded question, first defuse the complex emotional nature of the situation by rephrasing or clarifying the question.
- When answering a negative question, neutralize the negative first, then bridge to one or two pertinent points that will present a more positive view. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to acknowledge a negative because it is true.
- Watch the interviewer closely for verbal or visual clues. Head nodding and a smile usually means to go on and elaborate. Finger drumming and constant shifting of weight could indicate boredom.
- Keep in mind the length of time originally planned for the interview. If the interviewer does not introduce your topic within a reasonable amount of time, you can do so by asking the interviewer a question that moves him/her to the topic.
- Check that the reporter has the correct spelling of your name and proper title.
- Assume your audience has no information. Approach the interview from the public’s viewpoint.
- Never argue with the reporter. You will probably lose.
- Be “up” and enthusiastic. If you do not seem to be excited by your topic, the audience will not be interested either.
Always determine when the story will run or appear (if on radio or television). You can ask that a tear sheet or transcript be sent to you.