Four Things You Need to Know About Reporters
Almost every time I do a media training session, I’m reminded how most people don’t understand some fundamental details about the news business and news reporters.
It’s understandable. There are some basic details about the business of each group that I do media training for that I don’t understand either.
I always say people need to know “the rules of engagement” when dealing with the media to be successful during interviews.
Here are four things you need to know about reporters.
I Know You're Out to Get Me
A common concern that I keep hearing when I do media training is the media is out to get me, or the media will make me look bad. In fact, it’s really the opposite.
This may be true of politicians with experience in front of the media and it certainly is true of some rip-off contractors the media has been chasing, but it’s not the case for the average media spokesperson. If you’re the typical person who occasionally speaks on behalf of your association, not-for-profit, or your company, the media actually goes out of its way to try to make you look good. On television, camera operators try to shoot the interview in the best lighting to make sure you look your best and you’re not squinting by looking into the sun. When reporters and editors decide on the clips from the interview they’re going to use on air, they select ones they feel tell your story in the best way and not ones that are embarrassing.
I tell people when I do media training that if they make a mistake in a recorded interview, just ask the reporter if he/she can ask the question again. Remember a reporter only wants to get one or two sound bites from you to use, or a couple of quotes, so asking a question again so they can get a better answer is not a big deal for them.
My advice always is, stop worrying about the media wanting to make you look bad and focus on giving the answers to the questions that you’ve prepared in advance. You have prepared haven’t you?
No Time to Practice - I'll Just Wing It
From time to time I’ve heard people who are supposed to be preparing for an interview say “I’ll just wing it”, or “I’ll just talk”. I always cringe when I hear statements like that. A media interview isn’t something you should “wing.” This isn’t a pick-up father-son shinny game. It’s serious stuff and chances are the interview will be seen by thousands of people.
Take time to prepare properly. Take the following four steps in your preparation and I can almost guarantee you’ll do a good interview:
- Learn everything you can about the issue – study it in detail
- Figure out what you’re going to be asked
- Decide how you’ll respond to those questions
The last part is the hardest and most awkward but it can provide the biggest payoff. You’ve got your questions and decided what you’ll say in response, so now go to somebody you can confide in and ask them to play reporter. Do a mock interview and give the answers the same way as you plan to do in the real interview. Use your phone to record the interview and then look at it to see how you “come off” in the interview.
Can You Send Me a List of Questions?
Let me save you some time – the answer is no. That is, if you are doing a traditional interview with a reporter, either in person or over the phone. If a reporter sent you a list of questions via email and wants you to respond in writing, then go ahead and respond, but don’t ask a reporter who’s going to meet you for an interview to send a list of questions in advance.
Reporters don’t think about questions in advance. They’re usually too busy. They do know what areas they’ll get into with their questioning, but hardly any reporters decide on specific questions in advance. What if you say something that is really interesting in your first answer? Is the reporter supposed to let it go and move on to question #2? Of course not.
When a reporter contacts you, rather than asking for a list of questions, ask what they want to talk about. After you ask that question, listen closely to the answer. It can be pretty revealing. You may also want to ask who else the reporter plans to talk to. If it's somebody from the other side of the story you already know that the reporter plans to get somebody who’ll likely say something much different than you.
But You Can't Use That on the Air
From time to time somebody being interviewed will say something really juicy to a reporter and then say “But you can’t use that – that’s not for on air purposes.” Wrong move. That’s like waving a chocolate bar under the nose of a four-year old and then telling them they can’t have any.
Decide in advance what you don’t want to say during a media interview. There normally are a few things you know are touchy and you don’t want to talk about during the interview. Figure out what you’ll say if you’re asked a question by the reporter that gets into a sensitive area. Whatever you do, don’t start talking about a controversial subject and then tell the reporter that comment can’t be used on the air. A simple rule of thumb is, if you don’t want it on the air, don’t say it.
They're Just Doing Their Job so Relax
Keep in mind that reporters are far busier than they used to be in most cases. I wrote a blog about this last year. They need to provide more content, both for their media outlet and also their social media account and there are far fewer journalists than there used to be.
The reality is, reporters don’t have much time to bear grudges. They need to get a few comments from the people they interview and move on. They’ve tried to make far more people look good than look bad and that’s not an “alternative fact.”