Media Relations Part 2: Learn What You Need to Know Before Talking with a Reporter

For clients who want to know how best to talk to reporters, whether in the middle of a crisis or transition for their company, or even with positive news coverage for an event or a new hire, I first draw them back to the basics.

I start by asking them if they know how to talk.

It’s a brusque question, but hear me out. I guide our clients through a process called Combat the Crutch, which tackles some of the worst self-imposed barriers we place on effective communication. Our use of crutch words is near the front of the pack, and clearing them away lays the ground for what you say next.

Crutches are part of that flustered feeling in our first job interview, or those times we got in trouble as teenagers and had to face up to our parents. We subconsciously try to buy time by using the “ums” and “ahs” — but what it really means is that we don’t have our message down pat.

What you’re saying by using them is that you really don’t know what you’re saying.

In our careers, we’re told to develop an “elevator pitch.” When you have a message to communicate to the media, it can help to think in the same way. You can’t be caught off guard, and you always need to be ready to fluently state your position or your company’s — a situation that you’re in or a change that’s happening. As we discussed in my previous post on communication tactics and developing your message, you also want to state your case without over-speaking — knowing when to shut up, in other words. Crutch words and word-vomit usually go hand-in-hand.

It isn’t just the words we speak, but good pronunciation and a consistent pace. Open body language is also important. This is true even over the phone, because the listener can “see” you based on how confidently you’re speaking. Take a breath in when you feel the temptation to “um” your way through a point.

You don’t need to have been a theater major in college to get this right. It takes practice, and lots of it. You should even practice when you don’t have a specific speech you need to deliver, to help yourself cut through the crutch words and be able to speak fluently on any topic on cue.

I wouldn’t get anywhere near the phone, much less a camera, until you’re confident you can represent yourself and your company with fluency and confidence.

So now…your company is in the news (hopefully for a good reason), and you have television and newspaper reporters blowing up your phone. You know how to make your case when you connect, but how do you play the media game to maximize your handle on the coverage?

First of all, call reporters back as soon as possible if they don’t reach you — well before the story’s deadline. If you don’t, the reporter may look for alternate sources of information, which means the resulting information might not be beneficial to you or your company. The story may already be mostly written if you wait a while to return the call.

Soon, you get a chance to talk. Reporters will ask several types of questions, including ones you don’t know the answer to. It is okay to not know the answer to something, but don’t let yourself slip into crutch words.

Be ready for anything. Memorize a statement like, “I’m not sure of the exact answer to that question, but let me find out and get back to you.” Like I mentioned in my last post, you might try bridging to an answer you doknow — a form of pivoting. It might sound like this: “What I can tell you about X is…” allowing you to demonstrate knowledge about the general subject, with your credibility as a source staying untouched.

The pivot trick is especially important if you’re interviewed live. “I don’t know” can sound unsteady at best, with you looking desperate for the questioner to move on — which, sensing your discomfort, they won’t ­– and curt or flippant at worst.

You’ve banished “ums” and “ahs,” but you should also never offer personal opinion when you get stuck — an easy trap to fall into, since many reporters will outright ask. You’re a spokesperson and representative of your organization. Always make that clear, including to yourself.

The example of John Mackey, then the CEO of Whole Foods, stands out in my mind. A few years ago, he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing President Obama’s healthcare reform proposal.

It was an article based on his personal opinion, but he was known as the face of Whole Foods. Let’s face it: As someone who was not an expert on healthcare reform, the piece was an answer to a question no one asked him. He was let go from Whole Foods not long after that. It’s tempting to say how we feel. But usually that isn’t what we’re being asked for.

By the way, besides steering clear of personal opinions, realize that you are not bound to a yes or no response to a question just because it’s posed that way. Reporters will sometimes ask those questions to try and trap you, and preface it with, “this is a simple yes or no.” But don’t give the obvious answer, because that could turn into a horrible quote. If you need to use a longer, pivoting answer to explain, do so — and don’t be afraid to politely interrupt the reporter trying to steer you back into the yes or no box.

In my final piece on media relations, we’ll develop strategies to increase your confidence at speaking and your knowledge on how to talk to reporters and handle their questions, and segue them into a broader approach to keep your cool when things seem to spin out of control. Because business disruption is here to stay.

But if you’re phone’s ringing now with a reporter at the other end, you’re ready. Just take a breath and deliver.

CEO and co-founder of Caissa Public Strategy. Business strategist, best-selling author, attorney and public speaker.

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