As we draw nearer to the 2016 election cycle, I can’t help but notice more of the usual silly gaffes by politicians in press interviews, reminding me how even public figures in the limelight can make basic mistakes in dealing with the press.
With that in mind, here are just a handful of tips from my one-hour basic training class on press relations that can help anyone to perform better in interviews and cultivate good press relations:
- Prepare for the interview. A press interview is not just a conversation. It is usually a brief chance to say something pertinent and informative that will stick in the minds of reporters, viewers and/or readers. Being concise and memorable is not an accident. It is a result of preparation for the likely questions. For instance, President Ronald Reagan knew he was likely to be asked about his fitness for office when campaigning for re-election at age 73, and that is why he rehearsed a witty response to an inevitable question about his age, stating “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my [56 yr. old] opponent’s youth and inexperience.” For those speaking to reporters for print publications, it is also important to be prepared so that you don’t waste the reporter’s time or end up having the reporter terminate the interview early because he or she decided that you can’t get to the point fast enough.
- Don’t try to control a press encounter. In my experience as a reporter, too many sources who are learned professionals try to control the interview. They think they know best what questions you should ask, what you should write, and what the end product should look like. They have no idea how the press works. They don’t understand that an editor approves the story, the angle on the story and the final product (or not). They come off as amateurs trying to do dictation to their secretaries. Treat the reporter as a professional, and don’t try to do their job for them or talk down to them. Just answer the question that is asked. Also, you can ask to have your quotes read back to you (though that is not something busy reporters like to do) but you should never, ever ask to proof the story before it goes to print, as that is just not going to happen (unless you have a very unusual relationship with reporter and editor).
- Call the reporter well ahead of deadline. Another amateur move is to call a reporter five minutes before deadline to offer a quote or observation about a story. First of all, the reporter has probably written the story by then, and your call is not likely to be taken. But even if the reporter is hurriedly putting the finishing touches on the story, he or she is not likely to squeeze in your one quote they have time to get on the phone. The later you call, the less likely your observations are needed. The earlier you call, the more time the reporter will spend with you, and the more likely they will lean on you for key information in developing the story. So call early – not late.
- Don’t go “on the record” and then “off the record” repeatedly. This is another stunt that shows you are both unprepared and unpracticed in dealing with the press. If you want to offer some material “on background” to help the reporter understand the story (without being quoted) that is fine, but don’t do too much of that. The reporter needs sources willing to speak. If you are not willing, then refer them to someone who is. Understand also that you can say some things without attribution or with limited attribution. You could agree with a reporter that they can refer to a source as “a Boston employment attorney” if you want to speak to one sensitive issue in the story without your name being used. But basically, if you don’t want to be quoted, don’t bother calling back to talk about the story.
- Ask the reporter how you can help them (other than by just answering questions). They might need other sources who are knowledgeable about specific issues in the story – sources you might be able to introduce to them. They might need background information and you could recommend a basic text or primer. They might also need and will usually welcome input on future story ideas pertinent to their “beat.” For instance, a reporter covering legal news might like to have a source send periodic notes about topical stories developing in the legal world, whether or not they have anything to do with the source. Your credibility is especially enhanced and your input valued when you can offer helpful information on stories for which you will not be an expert commentator.
If you do a great job of helping a reporter, you will go in their black book with a five-star rating and you will get called again and again. If you are a pain in the butt, you will go in the book with one star, and a big “do not call” sign next to your name. Oh, and reporters share notes with other reporters – in some newsrooms they even have one collective source book. So treat the reporters like the professionals they are, and don’t lecture to them.
You can also get more press attention by participating in press searches for experts on various subjects. Check out, for example, the “HARO” organization, which stands for “help a reporter out” by going to helpareporter.com.