3 things you should never say to a reporter

A few things you might see as helpful suggestions may actually come off as combative or just plain confusing.

Agreeing to an interview with a reporter can be terrifying.

Making casual conversation is one thing, but making casual conversation with someone who’ll write down everything you say and publish it? If your first thought is, “Yikes!” you’re not alone.

Being interviewed by a reporter doesn’t have to be scary. Reporters are just trying to do their jobs. Typically they’re speaking to you because you’re an expert on something; they’re genuinely interested in what you have to say.

There are some general guidelines. It’s often helpful to treat interviews like conversations (albeit ones that are being recorded). Remember to be friendly and polite; reporters are human, after all. They’re often busy and stressed, so a bit of, “Hi, I enjoy reading your work,” never hurts.

It’s also essential to know whom you’re talking to and what you’re talking about. You should receive detailed briefing information from your PR rep, and it’s always good to do some digging into past Tweets and articles.

Although you shouldn’t sweat talking to a reporter, you should avoid these common responses.

1. “It’s on our website.”

An interviewee will often fall back on this one after being asked specific information from a report or about his or her company’s profile.

Even if it’s meant to be helpful—”I could save everyone time by pointing to where this is spelled out” —it comes across as though the interviewee just can’t be bothered or isn’t really interested in participating in the interview. Or may not even know the answer.

It also means an extra step for a time-pressed reporter who might want a one-sentence, conversational answer. A better approach is to give an overview of the information and send a link to the website afterward.

2. “…but don’t quote me on that.”

On the record/off the record is a tricky world to maneuver, with journalists and interviewees frequently following different rules. Here is what they teach you in journalism school:

• Always assume the interview is “on the record,” meaning the reporter can print everything you say, unless otherwise specified from the outset.

• If you want to say something to the reporter that you don’t want printed, you can ask, “Can we go off the record?” You cannot say something and then try to take it back, though. That’s not the way it works.

• If you want to say something to the reporter that you’d like to see in the article but don’t want attributed to you, you can ask, “Can we go on background?” or, “Can I say something that is not for attribution?” This means that you cannot be quoted, but the sentiment of what’s expressed can be stated in the article.

• Unless the reporter agrees to go off the record or on background, everything you say can be printed. Including anything that precedes the phrase, “Don’t quote me on that.”

We generally counsel to avoid confusion entirely by staying on the record. If you feel there’s something you think the reporter should understand but you don’t want to be quoted, you can ask your PR rep to communicate it to him or her afterward.

3. “If you had done more research…”

Busy reporters don’t have time to dig deep when it comes to background information. When it comes to explaining the basics, a little kindness, will pay off; a misinformed reporter is never a good thing.

If you get the sense that the journalist is not quite grasping your message or the information you’re providing, ask, “Would it be helpful if I gave you some background on the subject? I’m happy to start at the beginning.”

That way, the reporter will actually understand what you’re talking about, making for a well-informed, nuanced article.

Anne Baker is a senior account executive at InkHouse Media + Marketing. Follow her on Twitter @Anne_Baker. A version of this story first appeared on the agency’s blog.

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Topics: PR

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