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Using Rhythm With Reporters to Avoid Getting Screwed - Part 2

By Richard B. Barger, ABC, APR

Originally Posted

A few nights back, down at the CornerBar, a reporter friend was lecturing a few of us PR and MR types on the things we do right, the things we do wrong, and the things he thought any damn fool ought to be smart enough to figure out when dealing with reporters for a living. He was like an open tap, spewing useful information, so I bought another round, and he picked right up where he left off last week:

  • Know the reporter; do your homework. Profile the reporter before he profiles you. This is easier than you might think. Find out what questions he -- and others -- have asked in similar situations; brainstorm the issues that might logically come up and prepare answers.

  • Even if a reporter is just "shadowing" you for an hour or two -- not really doing an interview, just finding out what your organization or department is like -- watch those off-the-cuff remarks. They'll come back to haunt you.

  • There is no such thing as "off the record." If a reporter is in the room, he may be taking mental notes even if he doesn't have a note pad out; if there is a microphone, assume it is live. Don't get trapped by a "microphone check" that someone recorded. You're not as skilled as President Jeb Bartlett of NBC's The West Wing, when, on the March 27, 2002, show, he gave an "off the cuff" answer before an open mike on purpose (!) to trash a political opponent. He has better writers than you do, and they have the ability to dictate the outcome. In just 60 minutes! Journalists have widely differing interpretations of "background," "off the record," "not for attribution," and similar terms. If you don't want to read it on the front page of tomorrow's paper or hear it on tomorrow's broadcast, don't say it.

  • Always tell the truth. It is impossible to estimate the damage a false statement -- or even carefully crafted, misleading information -- will do. Decline to answer if necessary (offering a credible reason), but never misstate or intentionally mislead.

  • Sometimes the news is bad: The story will be told by someone; you're better off if it comes from you. Otherwise, you miss an enormous opportunity to control the agenda. The longer you delay, the more opportunity for a vacuum to be filled by someone else's ideas and positions. Try to influence public perception by what you say and how you say it. You may not like the treatment, but at least you will have established credibility. Try to get all the bad news out at once, rather than by the media version of water torture: one reported discovery after another.

  • If the situation is extremely high-concern or low-trust, your primary goal must be to establish yourself and your organization as trusted, credible sources of information. People in high-concern situations want to hear from officials who are knowledgeable, expert, in authoritative positions. The most important factor in establishing credibility in these crucial situations is to project empathy and caring before offering facts or logic.

  • According to the latest research, the ideal response in high-concern, low-trust situations is:

    • Expression of empathy and caring, supported by appropriate nonverbal cues.

    • Positive short conclusion.

    • Two supporting facts.

    • Repeat the conclusion.

    • Talk about the future.

    For maximum effectiveness, provide precisely four credible sources who support your position. Reinforce your key message by repeating it twice. Sound pretty specific? The research doesn't lie. This is "best practice" stuff.

  • Ban negative words -- not, never, no, none, nothing -- from your vocabulary in high-concern situations. Discipline yourself to avoid negative prefixes: un-, dis-, im-, in-. Never repeat negative statements or allegations in answering a question; turn them around and give a positive response. Give two supporting facts.

  • Never refuse to comment; explain why you cannot answer the question, then make one of your pre-determined positive points. Turn negative questions into positive answers. "No comment" must be banished from your vocabulary. On controversial issues, this avoids a 650-word story with 600 words stating the opposing point of view, and 50 saying that you refused to comment. Control the agenda; think of the likely headline; influence public perception to your own advantage.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Remember, serious communications mistakes can have adverse consequences for your organization, while skilled communications can help you obtain support and achieve your goals. Obtain feedback from a mirror, a tape recorder, a VCR, your spouse, a co-worker, your organization's communications officer ... but practice. It IS possible to prepare for interviews -- even hostile interviews on negative subjects. Have your objectives in mind before you speak to the media; predict questions before they are raised and practice the answers, remembering the principles mentioned here.

  • And, to paraphrase Mark Twain, never get in a pissing match with someone who buys his ink by the barrel or videotape by the case!

My journalistic pal said he admired watching an experienced pro work, that it was a turn-on when media relations types actually did it right. Something like what Bill Hurt said to Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, after she'd talked him through a crucial live report: "What a feeling having you inside my head. ... There was like a rhythm we got into. It was like great sex!" The rhythm method might be just what we need.

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