When dealing with the press, it is important to realize that the outcome will not necessarily be like you think it should be. Rather than controlling the press, it is better to think in terms of managing it. The following covers some basics and serves as a primer on managing the press.
Know With Whom You Are Dealing
If you are contacted by a reporter, the reporter should identify herself and the organization that she is representing. Be sure to have a clear understanding of which media you are dealing with, i.e. a trade publication, newspaper, or television. Provide responses that the reporter will understand. For example, a Wall Street Journal reporter probably will have a better understanding of business issues than will a smaller town newspaper reporter, so be sure to tailor your responses accordingly. Also consider who will be the ultimate audience.
Building the Relationship
Your relationship with reporters is very important and is the basis of your interaction with the media. These relationships take time to develop, and this time should be viewed as a long-term investment.
If you are heading a start-up company that has not established a relationship with the local press, read the local publications and get the names of the reporters who cover your specific topic. Check out the online version of the publication and search for articles by those reporters. It would be good to discern whether the reporter is skeptical about the type of company you are running, for example, if the last start-up he covered went bankrupt. Note any articles that are particularly interesting to you and contact the appropriate reporter and offer to buy a cup of coffee so that you can introduce yourself, mentioning that you enjoyed the article that you found so interesting. Often your offer will be accepted; because journalists constantly are looking for news, they are more approachable than many people think. Don't expect an article to result; rather, the purpose of the meeting is to start building the relationship for when there may be some news.
To avoid appearing as though you only are seeking free publicity, consider "trend" stories. Reporters like trend stories and you increase your chance of coverage if your company can be used as an example to illustrate a trend. If your company is doing something in response to other news, it could make a great article. Even if your company is not the main topic, it nonetheless can be valuable to be mentioned in the story.
Declining to Comment
In some cases, you may not want any press coverage. In the interest of a good relationship, keep in mind that reporters expect you to answer their calls and do not like to be ignored. If for some reason you do not want to be interviewed, you should be aware that refusing to talk to them may result in a report that you refused their calls.
Taking the call but providing no comments may result in a report that you "declined to comment." Think about whether declining to comment will be perceived negatively by the public in the particular situation. Keep in mind that by talking, you have the opportunity to better define the issue. If you decline to comment and somebody else comments instead, you are letting someone else define the issue. If you must decline and you have a good relationship with the reporter, you may consider informing him or her that you can't talk about it now, but suggest getting together in a few weeks and you'll tell all about it. In any case, the reporter still has the right to say that you declined to comment.
Terms of Engagement
Before talking to the reporter, be sure to have an understanding of the rules of engagement. A reporter's aim in life is to find out as much as possible, and you should think of talking to a reporter as talking directly to the public. You always should understand the context in which you are being interviewed:
On-the-record : As long as the reporter identifies himself as a reporter, the assumption is that everything is "on the record." On-the-record means that your name and everything that you say can be reported.
Off-the-record : In some cases, the interview or part of it may be "off-the-record." The meaning of off-the-record is less precise, and you should not assume that you have the same understanding of it that the reporter has. Sometimes, off-the-record means that your name will not be disclosed; other times, it means that you will not be quoted. It is a good idea to clarify what off-the-record means if there is any doubt. When you provide information that is not to be quoted, the reporter should put down any writing instruments and turn off any tape recorder. In addition to reducing the chance that an off-the-record comment will be published accidentally, this action serves as a signal that the reporter acknowledges the off-record status of the comment.
Background information : "For background only" means that the information you provide is simply to educate the reporter. If such information is included in a news story, it usually will not be attributed to the source. One should clarify with the reporter to what extent the source will be revealed. For example, rather than using your name the reporter may attribute the information to "a company executive."
You may want to tape the interview if it will cover some sensitive topics. Get the consent of the reporter before doing so. If you are concerned about being misquoted, you can ask the reporter to read back any quotes before they are published. In most cases, they will do so if you ask and if they have the time. However, don't expect the reporter to show you the story before it is run; some sources would want to edit everything if they viewed it before publication. In the interest of professionalism most reporters will not show the story beforehand. Misquotes may be a concern, but that is a risk that you take when you agree to be interviewed. You can manage the process to minimize errors and show your company in its best light, but do not attempt to control the process. Reporters like to feel independent and don't like to be pushed or manipulated.
There are times when a source says something that is published out of context. You should be very thoughtful about everything you say, realizing that it could be taken out of context. Be careful about making a joke; it might become the headline. If a mistake is made, you can ask for a timely publication of a correction, but most of the damage already would have been done. If you feel that there is a serious error, it might be a good idea to set up a meeting with the reporter and editor to discuss it.
Newspapers tend to be reporter-driven, decentralized organizations. The business side is quite different from the news operations, and executives of the company usually do not pretend that they are journalists. One part of the organization has little influence over the other parts. Sometimes editors will suggest a story, but most ideas come from the reporters. Therefore, your key relationships will be with the reporters who cover stories related to your topic. If a reporter thinks that something is newsworthy, he will convince the editor to let him cover it.
Contacting the Press
When contacting the press with a specific news item, be aware of the deadlines, which may arrive sooner than you anticipate. Make sure that the names of the people and their titles are up-to-date. If you contact a former reporter who now is performing some other job function, your message may be ignored.
Mark E. Mathis, Feeding the Media Beast : An Easy Recipe for Great Publicity
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