Media Relations: Does It Have to Be a Battle?
A colleague recently forwarded a listing to me entitled, “The 25 Most Dangerous People in Financial Media,” which was authored by Joshua M. Brown of Backstage Wall Street. In Mr. Brown’s words: “Dangerous in a good way – these are the financial media players who are making things very difficult for the establishment to maintain the status quo.”
Many executives today fear what has been termed “gotcha journalism,” in which reporters attempt to entrap those they interview into making statements which are damaging personally, professionally as well as corporately. Of course, my friends in the media might view such techniques as part of the investigative journalism process. I suppose it depends on whose “ox is gored.”
If truth is on your side or you have a good story to tell or you have something that will bring new insights into an issue of the day, there really shouldn’t be a reason to fear the media. However, you should be prepared, and, while most communications pros know these, I offer the following tips to the uninitiated:
- Know the rules of engagement. Assume that everything said in an interview is on the record. A colleague of mine has often said, “If you don’t want to see it on a billboard in Times Square, don’t say it…”
- Pick your battles (and the battleground as well). While you can’t always work with media sympathetic to your cause, do you need to put yourself in harm’s way? I don’t believe in shying away from hostile media situations; however, be prepared and focus the discussion on the points you want to make.
- Reporter vetting. Try to gain some insights into what the reporter wants to know about in advance of the interview. Research previous articles that he or she may have written to get a sense of style and any biases that may be present.
- An ounce of preparation. Goes a long way. The person to be interviewed should be subjected to a rigorous round of questioning by staffers or outside advisors. Pose the worst questions imaginable and help frame optimal responses.
- Know what you’re talking about. If asked to provide commentary on an issue, research the matter deeply and frame your thoughts accordingly (if your opinion runs counter to prevailing wisdom, all the better as reporters often seek contrasting viewpoints to balance a story).
- Be careful when discussing competitors. Often reporters will be working on a number of stories simultaneously. They might see your company as part of an industry piece and ask for your views on your competitors. Exercise extreme caution here and avoid mentioning the competition; you can easily refocus the interview by highlighting what your company is doing.
- “…Simplify, simplify, simplify!” So said Henry David Thoreau. He’s right. Have a handful of key messages you want to deliver – three is most likely best. Come back to them repeatedly as repetition builds awareness. Also, avoid jargon and stick to simple sentences. Think sound bites or as Mark Twain would have it: “a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.”
- “No comment”—not an option. This one should be put to bed permanently. You must answer every question. If you can’t answer a question, provide a reasoned explanation.
- Be on guard. Good reporters work to gain the trust of the individual that they are interviewing (I know, I did this when I was an ink stained wretch back in the Mesozoic Age). They become engaging and can lull a subject into thinking he or she is talking with an old friend and, in an unguarded moment, say something that will later be regretted. Obviously, you need to be careful to avoid falling into this trap.
- Hire a media trainer. Most media trainers are former reporters or TV journalists and are steeped in techniques that can enhance your encounter with the media (e.g., body language, “bridging” and so on). I’ve worked with Bob Geline of 144 Media over the years and his insights can be found on CommPro.biz from time to time.
- Media relations: It is a battle after all. The reporter has an agenda. He wants a story. The more controversial, the better. You have a point-of-view, too. The battle is set. Stick to your guns (sorry, for getting carried away with military imagery) and deliver your messages clearly, succinctly and forcefully.