Most of you will never have to deal with the media. For many more of you dealing with the media will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, such as when there’s a newsworthy event in your neighborhood. But some of you, through your professional or volunteer activities, will have occasion to deal with the media, and when you do there are some important principles to keep in mind.
Possibly the most important point to remember when dealing with the media is to be yourself; whether you’re dealing with radio, television or print journalists, don’t try to be somebody you’re not, just be yourself, warts and all.
When dealing with the media you have to be a conscientious listener. You must give your undivided attention to what the journalist is asking. Don’t start formulating your answer until you’ve heard the journalist’s entire question; otherwise you may not understand exactly what the question is about, for example should the journalist throw in an unexpected twist at the very end of the question.
You also have to remember which hat you’re wearing. Questions don’t always have a crystal clear context, but answers will always have at least a perceived context. For example, you would have far more credibility discussing the dreadful condition of the town’s streets when speaking as the president of the Chamber of Commerce than you would if you’re speaking as the president of a street paving firm.
“No comment” is not a substitute for “I don’t know.” Only when you have a reasonable explanation for doing so, such as on advice from your lawyer, should you use the phrase “no comment.” Even then you should always explain why you can’t comment; never just say “no comment” and let it go at that. If the real answer is that you don’t know, then admit that you don’t know. Never try to fake it. In any situation, without exception, if you don’t know the answer, say so. If the answer would require information you shouldn’t be expected to have, say so and explain why you aren’t the right person to deal with that particular question.
If you’re being interviewed for a radio or television show, remember that recorded interviews are usually edited, so short answers are less apt to be omitted or misrepresented.
Although in most media situations you will know more about your subject than the interviewer, you must never adopt a superior attitude. A good journalist will have done a lot of homework and will have access to an amount of research that might astound you. Adopting a superior attitude may well result in setting yourself up for a hard fall.
Another thing to remember is that the interviewer may have a biased opinion on a particular subject. It’s not a good idea to get into an argument with the person holding the microphone, or who, as Mark Twain said, “buys ink by the barrel,” but if you’re asked a question that’s based on an incorrect premise, always set the record straight before you respond.
Suppose you’re the chief financial officer of a corporation and the journalist asks, “Why should we trust your financial statements when you can put anything in them you want to?” Before answering why your statements are trustworthy you need to say something like, “I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed. Not only are there laws governing what we have to report, but our financial statements are audited by independent auditors.”
Sometimes a journalist’s question will contain inflammatory words or phrases. When this happens, don’t legitimize and reinforce such words or phrases by repeating them in your answer; rephrase them into factual terms. If a journalist says your company is “irresponsible and a blight on your industry”, don’t you say, “We are not irresponsible and a blight on our industry”. Instead, say something like, “Well, what’s really happening is that we’re taking the following actions to ……” and go on to explain your position in a positive light. Or you can point out that the question is loaded by saying something like, “Well, you obviously disagree with us on this, but here are the real facts,” then go into your positive reply.
When you run into a confrontational question, keep your answer as short as possible. Don’t get both feet in your mouth by giving a long, rambling answer; you’re apt to sound like you’re protesting too much, and you might say something totally inappropriate. However, simple “yes” and “no” answers tend to be viewed as evasive and impolite. Say what you need to say and then shut up. Silence is never your problem; even on live radio or television it’s the interviewer’s job to keep the show moving, not yours.
Be likeable, brief, honest and positive. The reasons are simple. If you come across as an arrogant ass the whole purpose of the press conference or the interview will be destroyed. Talking too much endears you to nobody and increases the possibility of saying something inappropriate. If you’re dishonest you will be caught out; if not right away, then certainly later. Being positive pays off; nobody likes to watch and listen to negative, whining, complaining people.
Don’t be rushed into poorly-considered or incomplete answers because the journalist has a deadline; that’s the journalist’s problem, not yours. Although short answers are preferable to long ones, you cannot adequately deal with a complicated issue in a seven-second sound bite.
It’s easy to get into trouble by making off-the-cuff comments that end up being recorded without your knowledge. Whenever you are around media people always assume the microphones are live, the cameras are running, and notes are being taken; even if it looks like they aren’t. Although there is a concept of “off the record,” you shouldn’t rely on it unless the ground rules have been clearly laid down beforehand and you have a good reason to completely trust the journalist.
The vast majority of journalists are honest, hard-working people who really aren’t out to get you. But every journalist’s mission is, in part, to get information to which they may not be entitled. The journalist has nothing to lose by interviewing you, but you, and those you represent, could lose a lot by what you say or how you say it.