Seven strategies for dealing with the media
Business owners and managers who find themselves in the media spotlight tend to complain that they’re being harassed, persecuted, or treated unfairly. All too often, those owners and managers receive that treatment because of their own actions in dealing with reporters and editors. You can keep from becoming your own worst enemy by following a few simple common-sense strategies.
Take control. If you report the story first, you retain the ability to frame it. Consider a situation in which a state regulator has determined that your facility accidentally dumped waste into a nearby stream and caused a large fish kill. One approach is to wait until the state tells the media what’s happening, the cameras show up outside your facility, and the stories present your business as secretive and irresponsible. The other approach is to quickly develop and distribute a statement explaining what happened and what you’re doing to resolve the situation. Now the media will approach you in an entirely different way.
Don’t delay. If a reporter leaves a message for you to call, don’t be paralyzed by fear. Return the call promptly. Two reasons: first, the longer you delay that call, the more you’ll stoke the reporter’s suspicions. A matter that might be dismissed with a thirty-second conversation could now become much more complex. Second, if you don’t return the call, you’ll look like you’re hiding something when the story airs or is printed. “We tried to reach Ms. Jones for an explanation, but she did not return our calls.” You may be completely innocent, but the readers or viewers who don’t know you will assume you’re guilty.
Tell the truth. This sounds simple (and maybe even a little childish), but it’s crucial. If you lie or try to deceive a reporter, you’re setting yourself up for grief. Reporters will discover the truth, especially in this era of social media and extraordinary access to information. All it takes is one unhappy employee or frustrated customer to convince everyone that you’re a liar. If you consistently tell the truth, you won’t have to keep track of multiple mistruths.
Don’t guess or speculate. If you don’t know, don’t say. When a reporter asks you a question, it’s much better to say, “I don’t have that information, but I will find out for you” than to make up some sort of answer on the spot. Make sure you do follow up promptly with the reporter, too. If not, he or she will assume that you’re being evasive. By the way, “no comment” is usually a bad answer, unless you explain why you can’t comment. Think of your reaction when you see someone brushing past a camera, saying “No comment.”
Think before you talk. Sometimes, you won’t have any warning. But in most situations, you’ll have at least a few minutes to prepare. Think of what questions the reporter will be likely to ask, and rehearse your answers. Choosing the right words and practicing them is not being deceptive, and the more comfortable you become with your words, the more truthful and candid you’ll appear to be (especially on TV).
No “off the record.” We’ve all seen the movies and TV shows where an executive or politician delivers the party line, then winks at the reporter, says, “But off the record …” and spills the real story. The reporter and the subject share a friendly laugh, and nobody ever learns the truth. It doesn’t work that way in real life. You’ll regret that “off the record” remark when it’s the lead story on the 6:00 p.m. news or a big headline in the paper.
Get help. If you’re in a really tough or tricky situation, don’t try to handle it yourself. Engage the services of a PR professional immediately, and refer all media calls to that firm or individual. PR pros are accustomed to working with the media — and reporters are accustomed to working with them.
One bonus strategy: work with the media before there’s a problem. If you already have a cooperative relationship with the reporters and editors who have reason to cover your business, they’re more likely to work with you when something negative occurs. Don’t be afraid to share good news with them, and if they need information about something else, do what you can to help. Remember the Golden Rule, and treat them the way you would like to be treated.