Business owners and managers who find themselves in the media spotlight often complain they’re being harassed, persecuted, or treated unfairly. However, many of them suffer that treatment because of their own actions in dealing with reporters and editors. To keep from becoming your own worst enemy, follow a few common-sense strategies.
Take control. Reporting the story first allows you to frame it. Suppose a state regulator has determined that your facility accidentally caused a large fish kill by spilling waste into a nearby stream. You could wait until the state tells the media what’s happening, the cameras show up outside your facility, and you’re the star of stories presenting your company as irresponsible. Or you could 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, return the call promptly. First, the longer you delay that call, the more you’ll stoke the reporter’s suspicions, making a matter that might be dismissed with a thirty-second conversation seem much more complex. Second, if you don’t return the call, you’ll look like you’re hiding something. “We tried to reach Ms. Jones for an explanation, but she would not return our calls.” No one else will believe you’re innocent.
Tell the truth. It’s simple, but it’s crucial. If you lie or try to deceive a reporter, you’re setting yourself up for grief. In this era of social media and extraordinary access to information, reporters will discover the truth. One unhappy employee or frustrated customer can undo your most carefully planned lie. Plus, if you consistently tell the truth, you won’t have to keep track of multiple mistruths.
Don’t speculate. When a reporter asks a question, it’s much better to respond, “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, they’ll assume you’re being evasive. By the way, “no comment” is usually a bad answer, unless you explain why you can’t say anything right now. How do you react when you see someone brushing past a camera, saying “No comment”?
Think, then speak. In most situations, you’ll have at least a few minutes to prepare. Think about what questions the reporter will be likely to ask and rehearse answers to them. 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 where someone delivers the party line, then winks at the reporter and says, “But off the record …” before spilling 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. Your “off the record” remark will be the lead story on the 6:00 p.m. news or a big headline in the paper.
Get help. Don’t try to handle a tough or tricky situation yourself. Engage the services of a PR professional immediately, and refer all media calls to them. PR pros are accustomed to working with the media — and reporters are accustomed to working with them.
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 cooperate with you when something negative occurs. Don’t be afraid to share good news with them. If they need information about something else, do what you can to help. Remember the Golden Rule … treat them the way you would like to be treated.