What To Do When a News Reporter Calls
by the EditPros

Your phone rings. A news reporter is calling to learn your reaction to proposed legislation that would affect your industry and, more specifically, your company. 

Should your comment? If so, what should you say? About what should you be cautious? Should you view your conversation with the reporter as a promotional opportunity or as a potential predicament? 

Under the right circumstances, a news interview can be mutually beneficial to the reporter and to the interview subject. Good news coverage helps establish credibility and name recognition with the public. Welcome the opportunity to make a contribution and present your organization in a favorable light. To make the most of any interview, however, you need to be prepared. We offer a dozen guidelines to keep in mind. 

1. Understand the story.

Ask the reporter to explain the story assignment and your relationship to it. Ask how the reporter selected you and ask who else is being interviewed. Ask what prompted the interest in the story. Remember that the reporter has been assigned to bring back a story, and then do your best to help if you believe you can contribute meaningfully. Proceed with caution, however, because reporters naturally look for elements of conflict to introduce drama into a news story. Try to determine if the reporter has any preconceived notions that may be unrealistic, and provide corrective evidence. 

2. Remain in control.

Don't feel obligated to respond to an unexpected call from a reporter. If you feel unprepared, or think someone else in your organization may be better equipped to provide answers, ask about the reporter's deadline. If you need to do some research in order to respond to questions thoughtfully, ask if the interview can be scheduled for a later time. However, weigh the consequences of delay; a reporter in a hurry to complete a story may simply replace you with another source. You must determine whether your need to prepare outweighs the risk of your elimination from the story. 

3. Respond promptly.

If a reporter leaves a message for you, return the call as soon as you can--even if it's to say that you don't have time to talk or feel unqualified to respond. Rudeness and inaccessibility constitute poor public relations. 

4. Identify each other.

When you agree to an interview, clearly and slowly spell your name and announce your title and job function. Likewise, ask for the reporter's name, news affiliation, phone number and, if you wish, e-mail address. If you're unfamiliar with the reporter's publication, broadcast station or network, ask for a description of the audience. 

5. Tell the truth.

If you don't know an answer, don't bluff. Just tell the reporter you don't know. Avoid answering hypothetical questions about which you're uneasy. 

6. Anticipate questions.

Think what you would ask if you were a reporter covering this story. Try to imagine what readers, listeners or viewers would want to know, and be prepared to provide that information. Anticipate tough questions, and have answers ready. 

7. Provide clear explanations.

News reporters are rarely experts in the subject matter they cover, and they may disguise their inadequacies. You know your field much better than they do, and you can help by offering thorough explanations with supporting background information. Emphasize information you believe is important for the reporter's audience to understand, and illustrate complicated matter with analogies. Don't use jargon, and identify any acronyms. When discussing complicated material, feel free to verify the reporter's understanding to make sure that no information was misinterpreted. 

8. Try to relax. Stay alert, but be personable.

Eliminate distractions and try to remain calm. Calmness evokes confidence, while tension suggests that you may have something to conceal. Don't rush; enunciate. 

9. Stay "on the record." 

Information provided "off the record" does a reporter little good. Discuss sensitive issues in terms that protect you but that provide the reporter with useful information. "No comment" is an inadvisable response to a difficult question, suggesting that you are trying to conceal guilt. Instead, offer an explanation: "We're still investigating that matter," or "That's a personnel matter and we need to preserve confidentiality." 

10. Stay on track. 

Answer questions directly and concisely. Radio and television reporters in particular want short "sound bites"--punchy, witty, wise, insightful observations of no more than 10 seconds. Don't try to be a stand-up comic, but if a snappy turn of phrase comes to mind, use it. 

11. Be helpful. 

Offer to send background information to the reporter by fax or e-mail. If the reporter agrees, send material that will enhance understanding of the topic. While the reporter may not necessarily use the information for this particular story, such assistance helps establish a trusting, cooperative relationship that could invite the reporter to return to you for expert commentary on future stories. 

12. Beware what you wear. 

Dress appropriately, particularly if you're going to be photographed. Solid, dark colors are best for television.  Suggest settings that are visually interesting and underscore the story subject. Dispense with jangly jewelry if you're being interviewed on television or radio. 

If you're pleased with the eventual story, let the reporter know in a note or phone call. 

These tips cover nonconfrontational news contacts. Times of crisis, however, call for special preparedness and responses. A written news media policy can provide guidelines to all of your employees for interaction with news reporters. But that's another subject.

EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs  and Jeff March
423 F Street, Suite 206, Davis, CA 95616-4153
(530) 759-2000;  fax (530) 759-2051 http://www.editpros.com

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