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What to Do When a Reporter Calls

Advance preparation can prevent a panic attack and turn you into a media darling.

Helen Modly and Tommie Monez, 03/08/2012

Do you know how to handle a call from a reporter? Are you prepared, or do you just wing it? Do you know how to control the conversation? Are you solid on the facts?

Some of us are naturally good at interviews and some of us need a lot of help. With just a bit of advance preparation and some practice, a call from a reporter can become a welcome interruption.

You don't need to wait for a call to practice your media skills. Prepare a list of questions on a current topic, and practice answering them out loud. For a more natural delivery, keep your answers conversational as if you are talking to a client, and do whatever it takes to put some energy into the conversation--stand up, walk around, look into a mirror, be happy.

Also, remind your staff to be careful when screening phone calls. It's not unusual for a reporter to be brushed off by efficient assistants who think they are talking to a salesperson.

Taking the Call
When you do get a call, following these simple steps will help things go more smoothly:

1. Ask questions. After the introductions have been made but before the reporter starts asking questions, ask some questions of your own. What is the publication? Where is it published? Who reads it, and when will it be published? (Remember, a niche publication can be as effective as one with a broad readership.) What is the topic, the scope, and the angle of the story? What is the reporter looking for? And most importantly, what is the deadline? Now come up with a plausible excuse to call back in 10 minutes. Do not ad lib.

2. Prepare, then call back. Go into hyper-drive to prepare then call back right away. Refresh yourself on the topic, try to anticipate possible questions (even antagonistic ones), and come up with two or three strong message points. Google the reporter and read recent articles for style and biases. Tailor the comments to the audience and remember that your boss may also be reading your comments. Your advice and information should be actionable, interesting, unique, and quotable. Real life sells--use stories and analogies that will resonate with the reporter and the audience, but be careful to ensure that clients cannot be personally identified.

3. Make the call. Call back within 10 minutes. A reporter's time is precious, so expect only about five minutes to cover the two or three main points. Stay in control of the interview. Know what you want to say and how you want to say it and remember to stay on message. Consider the audience, keep it simple, and don't get carried away with facts and figures. State the conclusion first then fill in with data and explanations to keep the focus on the message. Be positive. If there is a problem, offer a solution. If the issue concerns the past, talk about the present and the future.

Don't allow the conversation to draw you into saying things that you don't want to say. Take a breath and tailor your answer so that you can transition to the points that you want to make. If the interview seems to be going in a bad direction, use a "bridging statement" to get back on topic: "let's put this in perspective," "if you consider the broader view," "it's been my experience that…" Remember that you are the expert and reporters don't always understand the topic. Help the reporter identify what they should be looking at.

Consider everything to be "on the record." Anything you say can be quoted and attributed to you (and possibly misquoted or used out of context). You may be asked to respond "on background" without being quoted by name or "off the record," which theoretically can't name you or be used unless verified elsewhere. Never go off the record unless you know and trust the reporter and are willing to be at risk. Basically, you should operate as if there is no such thing as "off the record."

All information must be accurate. Thanks to the Internet, your words are permanent, and your mistakes will follow you forever (think Beardstown Ladies). Know your facts. If unsure, get back to the reporter ASAP to confirm your response. If a mistake is discovered, let the writer know immediately. Always tell the truth and be careful not to spin information unreasonably. If you don't know something, refer them to someone who would be a credible resource on the topic.

Be careful if making an e-mail response. Reporters often use e-mail remarks without notice so assume all comments will be published and don't leave anything open for misinterpretation.

Follow Up
Get to know the publication, the reputation, and slant of the writer, and volunteer to be a resource even if not quoted. Say thank you after the interview and again after publication, and remember them when you send holiday cards. Cultivate relationships with trusted and respected reporters but always be respectful of their time.

Articles are often published many months after the interview, so make a tracking sheet to follow up on when and where your words are published.

Send occasional story ideas to media contacts. Pitches to reporters should be concise and to the point. Lead with a couple of introductory sentences followed by no more than four bullet points and your contact information. Be sure you can address "so what and who cares?" To resonate with reporters, base your pitches on issues and challenges that your own clients are experiencing. Topics should be timely, controversial, entertaining, and relevant to the target audience. There is a lot of turnover in the media business, so be sure you are pitching to the right person by keeping press contacts current.

Create a media kit that you can present in hard copy or electronically, and send it to your media contacts. It should contain promotional and informative material about you and your company and should include news releases or media alerts (if current and topical), current photos, contact information, biographies, and a fact sheet about the company. It should also address areas of expertise, niche specialties, and availability as a speaker.

Give Yourself Credit
Getting quoted in the press may not cause the phone to ring with new clients, but it goes a long way in building credibility with existing clients and centers of influence. If you are quoted or featured in an online publication, send a link to the article through an e-blast to clients, centers of influence, and media contacts in financial publications. Professional associations and organizations such as chambers of commerce often have a "kudos" or "members in the news" page, so notify them as well. Add a link in the company website, add the information to your blog with a push notification to followers, and send out a tweet. In short, always leverage your 15 minutes of fame.

The author is a freelance contributor to MorningstarAdvisor.com. The views expressed in this article may or may not reflect the views of Morningstar.
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