Reporters ask lots of questions.
What if one happens to be, “Do you have time for a few questions?”
If the story will be written about your organization with or without your participation, the answer is usually “yes.” You can’t guarantee what the reporter will write, but you can help guarantee that your voice or your organization’s voice will be represented.
A “no” might be the better response under these circumstances:
- The topic is not relevant to your work.
- You question whether it is a legitimate news outlet.
- The story is not specifically about you or your organization. Rather, you are being asked to comment on a topic that you’d rather not be associated with, such as failing businesses.
- You gain nothing by doing it.
- The reporter or news organization is so loaded against you, historically, that being absent is better than being present.
If you accept, follow these nine rules:
1. Pre-interview the reporter.
You pick up the phone, and there is a reporter at the other end. Many spokespersons and subject-matter experts are compelled to answer questions immediately. Unless it is a breaking news moment and you are prepared, it’s best to hold off and offer to return the call promptly. The pause allows you to prepare before you speak.
Before you hang up, take a few minutes to learn more about the reporter, the focus of the story, and how you fit into it. Is the reporter interviewing others? Is there any research you need to do prior to the call? After you’ve researched the reporter and prepared for your interview, return their call.
2. Know the deadline.
It’s best not to wait until the deadline to return a reporter’s call. A deadline is what reporters work toward. Few journalists enjoy cranking out a story with moments to go. If you wait until the last minute, the reporter probably will have built most of the story. At best, you might get a brief comment into the piece. Fundamentally, you missed a chance to help frame the narrative. You could have provided a deeper perspective on the subject or persuaded the reporter to consider an alternative viewpoint or angle.
3. Never say, “No comment.”
There is no phrase more damning in a spokesperson’s lexicon.
You might say it because:
- You’re gathering your thoughts.
- You don’t have an answer.
- The answer is sensitive and warrants further review.
- You don’t want to answer the question.
Whatever your valid reason, the public usually comes away with just one impression: You’re hiding something.
That’s not to say you must spill the beans. Set a plan, and prepare a reply, something like:
“We do not comment on ongoing union negotiations, because negotiating in good faith means we speak directly to each other rather than using the press as a tool to advance our goals.”
4. Avoid off-the-record conversations
Secrets are hard to keep. In journalism, the idea of confidentiality, known as going “off the record,” can be problematic. Without a universal definition across all news organizations (even among individual journalists), it’s hard for reporters and their sources to keep it straight. In most cases, avoid its use.
If you do agree to speak off the record, follow these steps:
- Consult with a communications professional in advance.
- Consider your history with the reporter.
- Ask the reporter to define what “off the record” means to them.
- Forge an agreement before speaking, not after you’ve started talking.
5. Request the questions in advance.
Don’t expect consent on this from major outlets, though they might surprise you. You’re likelier to get such cooperation from smaller news organizations, trade publications, and entertainment media outlets.
Still, an interview is an interview, and other questions could be raised, so be ready for anything. Ask whether there’s any specific information or data you should gather to help you prepare. Most journalists want as complete a picture as possible, so they are likely to comply with the request.
6. Watch the clock.
You can limit the time of the interview for any number of reasons. You simply may not have much time—or you might have an inkling that the reporter is digging for dirt. A lengthy interview could turn into a dangerous fishing expedition. Set a limit of 15 minutes—and have an exit strategy in case the clock ticks past the appointed time.
7. Record the interview.
Even though many reporters are simply trying to write an accurate, engaging and compelling story, a source could be misquoted. State up front that you’d like to record the exchange, for the sake of courtesy and to stay within the law.
8. Stay in your lane.
Many interviewees feel compelled to answer every question—especially in a high-pressured interview. If a question is off the beaten path, do not follow.
Say, for instance, you’re a professor being interviewed about a new technology curriculum. Then the reporter asks for your thoughts about a recent salary hike for the university president.
Stay in your lane, offering:
“That’s a question better directed to the board of trustees, whose members handle matters of leadership compensation. As a professor, my expertise is about the new academic opportunities that are being offered to our students.”
You then can offer to connect the reporter with a more appropriate person for that topic.
9. Offer to fact-check.
That’s different from asking to see a story before publication. The former is helpful; the latter is annoying.
Sometimes reporters check back for just a single quote. Other times they need more extensive help. Either way, they are looking for an insert or clarification, not a rewrite.