Feature

How to deal with the media

Fielding enquiries or interviews from today’s varied media can be a tricky business. Find out what you need to know in order to get your point across.

Fast-growth companies often attract attention from the media, and these days that attention runs the gamut from mainstream broadcast, national press, trade journals and online-only channels, via third-sector watchdogs like Greenpeace and the WWF, down to legions of amateur bloggers, Tweeters and citizen journalists.

What do you do if one of these members of the fourth estate contacts you asking questions?

If you’ve appointed a PR agency, you put the journo in contact with them. But if you haven’t hired an agency, here are a few guidelines as to how to handle that enquiry yourself.

Rules of engagement 

If you’re contacted by a TV journalist offering a tempting interview slot, you may think you’ve landed your 15 minutes of fame only to find yourself facing Jeremy Paxman asking some awkward questions about your firm’s environmental record.

So first establish the basics. For whom is the journalist working? Where will the article/programme be published/broadcast? When? For example, it may run online immediately and be modified for print later.

Most importantly, what is the story? Is your firm the focus or are you being asked to comment on a wider issue? Once you have this clear, you can start thinking about what you want to say on the subject. Bearing in mind it will be seen by your customers, suppliers, employees, community, competitors and other stakeholders. And what’s the deadline? Do questions have to be answered right now or can the interview be delayed?

Off the record 

"Remember this golden rule of engagement: everything you say can be published or broadcast verbatim and attributed to you. There is no law governing ‘off the record’ statements; these are a private agreement between you and the journalist. Ask yourself: do you trust them? Remember, it is their job to make public what they know."

This applies to anything you say before, during and after a formal interview; to email; to Tweets and similar social media utterings; in fact, to anything you say in a public forum where a journalist is present. There are exceptions: legally binding non-disclosure agreements and Chatham House rules (the information can be published but not attributed).

Survival 

It’s acceptable to merely survive your first press interview. If you lack confidence, just answer the journalist’s questions without saying anything you shouldn’t. However, every press contact is an opportunity to communicate what matters to your firm. Preparation is vital if you want to weave your messages into your answers in a natural way.

Politicians are infamous for avoiding questions or banging on about their pet subject whatever the question asked of them. Don’t be that obvious. Don’t try to sell. Ideally, you’ll have a brief answer for each question, which also makes a point relevant to the message you want to propagate.

Few journalists will ask, “Tell the audience about how your product/service will cure the ills of mankind”, so you need natural bridges between what the journalist is asking and the messages you want to convey. For the inexperienced, such bridging takes preparation, although it will come more naturally with practice and will be easier the more at ease you are with articulating your core messages, the reasons why you do what you do.

Judge the tone of your answers (from formal to friendly) by what you know about the audience of the media outlet and the gravity of the subject. Think about how your behaviour will reflect on the image of the firm and your personal reputation.

Don’t say that! 

And now some don’ts:

  • Avoid saying “no comment” – Journalists and the public tend to interpret this as “I have something to hide”.
  • Don’t bluff your way through – If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so.
  • Don’t treat the questions as beneath you – Neither journalist nor audience are likely to know as much as you do. So be patient, educate without patronising, or you risk appearing arrogant.
  • Don’t panic – If a question catches you off-guard, acknowledge it, look like you’re thinking and maybe ask for clarification to buy yourself time.

And finally, don’t skimp on professional assistance. If you think you will be doing a lot of press interviews then budget for a PR agency and media training, which the agency can arrange with a specialist.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK

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