National Partnership for Reinventing Government

Table of Contents

Chapter 3


Chapter Two
Working With the Media

"I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers."

- Ghandi

What Do Reporters Want?

Just what do reporters want? Why don't they quote us? Why don't they ask us? How can I find out? There aren't any easy answers, but there is an easy way to find out: ask the reporter.

But, before you ask, be ready to hear the answers. Call or schedule an appointment when the reporter or correspondent isn't on deadline and has time to give you some thoughtful answers. Ask what kinds of stories the reporter wants to do; what turns that reporter on, which hot buttons to push; and when is the best time to call with your story idea.

Find out what he or she hates, what stories the company will or won't do, and what kinds of stories the reporter's editor likes. Not every story a reporter does or wants to do gets into print or on the air. Who runs the assignment desk? What producer might be interested? What does the bureau chief want? Who runs the futures desk? How many stories does the reporter or correspondent do every day?

What considerations go into the news mix of the day? What are the media demographics? Who are their readers? How old are they? How much time do they spend reading the paper or magazine? Who listens or watches? Is there a farm or business show? How old are average readers, listeners or viewers? How good are the ratings?

Ask, Ask, Ask ...

How are features handled? Is your department or agency given top priority, or are you at the bottom of the heap? When and why do your stories get to the top? What kinds of stories should you spend time pitching?

What does the reporter want from you-stories or story ideas? By mail with a follow-up phone call? By fax? Phone? E-mail? On your Web site? When is the best time to call, fax or e-mail? What are the deadlines? When do the reporters broadcast live? What hours do the reporters work? What other agencies/beats does your reporter cover? How can you tie your story into a current hot topic? Who do you call if you can't get to your reporter and you have an urgent story? Does this reporter know what a wonderful source you are? What a great interview your boss gives?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you'll be in a much better position to get your story idea covered.

Why not give the reporter a list of contact folks at your agency including phone, fax, and e-mail addresses? Staple your business card to it. If there are areas your agency doesn't cover, let your reporter pal know where your agency ends and another one begins. Don't assume reporters know everything about your agency. Even if they did, they have forgotten; or they need you to refresh their memories. Even if you've already sent them 20 copies of your contact list or phone numbers, give them another. In fact, give them two or three-one for their assignment desk, one for their boss, and one for their backup.

You'll build even more credibility with your reporter if you can suggest other expert sources of information.

"Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive."

- G.K. Chesterton

Building Media Relationships

One of the keys to success with the media is to understand that you can be an ongoing resource for reporters. Your job is to build relationships with members of the media, not just pitch stories to them every now and then.
  • To introduce yourself to local media, set up a series of initial meetings with editors at your community newspaper, and with producers and program or news directors at your local radio and television stations.
  • Send out a press kit mailing that has general information, a few story ideas, and a cover letter introducing yourself to newspapers and radio and TV stations in your region.
  • Join professional organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America and attend monthly meetings. Members of the media are frequently guest speakers at these events.
  • Develop a monthly one-page bulletin, or tip sheet, with news about your agency. This is a good way to keep in regular touch with your local media. You can send this tip sheet by fax or e-mail.
Tips for Even Better Media Relations:
  • Keep a list of people in your organization who are willing to give an interview so that you're ready when a reporter wants someone to interview.
  • In general, call reporters/editors/producers in midmorning. In late afternoon they're on deadline and won't have time to listen to your pitch. However, there are exceptions to this rule. As you begin to build relationships with members of the media, take the time to find out when the different reporters and editors are not on deadline and are able to talk. Depending on their beats, some may always be out of the office, or in a story budget meeting, at 10 a.m. Always ask at the beginning of your conversation, "Do you have time to talk?"
  • The same rule applies to the day of the week. Make your pitch earlier rather than later. Unless you have breaking, hard news, don't make your pitch on Thursday or Friday.
  • Make sure you know your reporters' beats before you make any calls. Know exactly what they do and do not cover, so you don't waste their time or yours.
  • Be mindful of a newspaper's deadline structure, especially with features departments. A Sunday Lifestyle section probably has deadlines on Wednesday or Thursday, so make your pitch well before then.
  • Most reporters prefer brief, concise faxes or e-mails over flashy press kits. Your brief, concise press releases should be one page, or no more than two pages. If you go over two pages, that's an indication that you should break your story into two separate pitches. Or break your oversized release into a release and a fact sheet. Many reporters prefer you send them fact sheets so they can develop their own stories.
  • Once you've established a relationship and have a good contact in a newsroom, don't hesitate to turn to him or her for advice. If you have a story idea and aren't sure who to pitch it to-or if it's even a strong enough pitch-call your contact and ask if you can run it by them. Ask what they think of it, and who, if anyone, they would suggest you pitch it to. This approach works incredibly well-if they're not on deadline or otherwise swamped, reporters love to be asked for their opinion.
  • Every paper has to write seasonal stories, such as Valentine's Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving, away from home on the holidays, and World AIDS Day. Find an angle that relates to your organization and develop it.
  • Assume that anything you say to a reporter or a correspondent will end up in print, on the radio, or on TV. Nothing is ever off the record.
  • Check your sources. Always talk to sources before you give their names and phone numbers to reporters. Look for interesting anecdotes that you can use to entice a reporter to interview your sources, and more importantly, find out what, if any, negative things your source might say. Caution your sources that their words can carry a lot of weight.
"The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read."

- Oscar Wilde

  • If your job is to prepare people for media interviews and public speaking, consider doing some mock interviews for new hires-do the interviews yourself or invite a reporter friend to the office to help you with this training. Or, contract with commercial sources, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to provide this training.
  • When you're making follow-up calls to members of the media, don't ask whether they received the press release you just faxed. This will only annoy them. Instead, ask if they want more information or if they would like to set up an interview. If possible add a new angle that tailors your release to their readership.
  • Don't forget your local columnists. You will be surprised-they may pick up your story idea when the news and features desks won't. As always, familiarize yourself with their columns and know what they write about before you make the pitch. If you don't, you risk insulting them and making yourself look foolish.
  • Don't be afraid to go the extra mile for a story, especially a feature.
  • Don't pitch the same story to two different assignment desks on one paper, or to competing newspapers, at the same time. If either editor finds out you've double-dipped, they may get upset with you and may kill the story completely.
  • Remember, it takes two steps to start a new relationship with a reporter or editor. It takes 11 steps to repair a damaged one.
  • Always offer visuals. Visuals define a feature story, and are essential to a television news package. Find out ahead of time what kinds of visuals you may have available (photos or videos, for example), and make sure you have plenty of stock photos and B-roll (extra footage) on hand to provide to your media contact.
  • When you're creating press releases, write like a journalist. Use attention-grabbing headlines. Put your news first, use quotes, and localize as much as possible. Come up with creative leads. Today's readers want the most recent facts first; background later.
  • Two of your most important assets are a sense of humor and a thick skin.
    • Media Tip: Have up-to-date information about your organization near your phone so that you can rattle it off quickly to the media without leaving anything out. Hang your General Facts over your telephone.
    • Media Tip: What should you do if you or your boss is misquoted in the media? If the error is substantial, you may want to call the editor or bureau chief and ask for a correction or retraction. If it's not a major error, and doesn't hurt the effectiveness of the article, you may decide to do nothing.
"Anyone nit-picking enough to write a letter of correction to an editor doubtless deserves the error that provoked it."

- Alvin Toffler

What to Do When a Reporter Calls

Reputable reporters will always identify themselves as reporters. Ask what they want. If you're not the person they need this time, tell them who is-if you know. Try to be helpful-take the time to get phone numbers and addresses right.

Ask what kind of story they're doing-who they've talked to and what they're looking for-what facts and figures they need.

  • There are two basic rules for dealing with reporters: Always return their phone calls promptly and always tell the truth.
  • Always respond to reporters-even if you're just calling to tell them you don't know the answers to their questions. Reporters are like elephants. They never forget public officials who lie to them, don't return phone calls, or give them wrong information.

Make sure you give media calls top priority. Media representatives are usually working on short deadlines. If you don't return their calls, you will give them a negative image not only of your agency, but of all public servants.

Media Interviews
What if the reporter wants an interview?

If the reporter wants an interview, find out the subject and scope before you agree-or ask your boss to agree-to be interviewed. Ask who else the reporter has interviewed or plans to interview. If this is a broadcast talk show, ask who the other guests will be and what topics will be discussed. Also, will it be taped or live?

You control the parameters for any interview-time, place, and length. Keep time with reporters short-that way you'll both be forced to focus on the issues you want to talk about. Fifteen minutes should be long enough for radio; 30 minutes for TV, including time for equipment set-up and break-down; as long as an hour for print. If you allow too much time, you might end up saying things you didn't mean to say.

How do I get ready for a media interview?

Do your homework. Review all the materials you can get about your agency, not just the material the reporter is asking about. Decide what you want to talk about.

Refine your three positive talking points. These are the three main points you want to make. Keep them positive. Keep telling yourself this is an opportunity. With a little thought, you can anticipate the reporter's questions and tailor your answers according to the three main points you want to get across. From your point of view, the interview should be driven by these messages, not by the questions. Plan to use your three points as the foundation for all the questions you will be answering.

Practice talking in 20-second sound bites. Practice making your points clearly and briefly. Don't use doublespeak, government-speak or jargon-phrases no one else understands. Talk in plain language. Organize your ideas logically. Use appropriate words. Speak in the active voice, rather than the passive.

Figure out how to personalize and humanize your information; tell how it affects the viewer or reader.

Get some show-and-tell materials ready-a book, a simple graphic to illustrate a complex statistic, or perhaps a model of what you're going to talk about. If you have videotape, get an extra copy ready to give to the correspondent.

Find out everything you can about the reporter or correspondent. What is his or her reputation for fairness? What stories has the reporter done? What types of stories has the publication or station done in the past? Are the stories long and in-depth, or short, lacking details? What is the slant to most of the stories?

Scan the news of the day to make sure you're prepared for any last-minute questions. For a TV interview, watch the news show to see how much air time each story gets. If this is a print interview, scan the latest issue of the publication.

Use Plain Language

People will understand what you are writing or saying the first time if you use plain language. Speak so that everyone can understand-not just other government bureaucrats. Use natural expressions and common words. Organize your ideas from general to specific; or from specific to general; from positive to negative; step-by-step or from most important to least important.

Use appropriate words-simple, everyday words. If you can take advantage of a popular expression to illustrate a point, do it. Don't use technical words. If you're forced to use a technical term, explain what it means. Don't make verbs into nouns. Choose your words consistently and be very careful of using acronyms. If there is any doubt, spell the acronym out. Keep your sentences easy to understand.

What if my boss is scared to talk to reporters?

Work with your boss. To get what you both want out of an encounter with the media, you both need to do your homework. You prepare for everything else in life that is important. An interview affects not only your own reputation, but also your organization's reputation.

Put your boss in front of a video camera to practice giving the major talking points and answering questions. Pretend you're a correspondent for 60 Minutes when you're asking questions. Let your boss critique his or her own video. If you don't think you can do this, hire a media consultant to help. Many government agencies hire outside help for this job.

But be honest. If your boss can't put two sentences together in front of a microphone and media training doesn't help, don't pitch your boss for on-air radio or TV interviews. Find someone else in your agency who is good at it.

Do These at the Interview

  • Do your homework before you talk to a reporter. Be prepared for the reporter's worst questions with three positive points you want to get across. Practice what you want to say. Remember you're selling your activity. Talking to a reporter is an opportunity.
  • Speak in short sentences using plain language. For TV and radio, think in terms of 20- or 30-second answers. This assures the reporter will use what you say.
  • Smile. Act like you enjoy what you're doing. Call reporters by their first name. Look interested and alert.
  • Tell a positive story. You do a lot of good things; tell the reporter about your three positive points.
  • If you don't know the answer, say, "I don't know." If you do know the answer and can't tell it now, tell the reporter when you can give him or her the answer. Refer the reporter to someone who does know the answer, or offer to find out who does.
  • If a TV station offers you makeup, take it. The TV camera will add ten years and ten pounds. Remember, the TV pros all wear makeup.
  • Dress conservatively and simply. Be remembered for what you said, not what you wore. Ignore this rule if you're a rock star.
  • Stop talking when you've made your point. Don't ramble on and on. Don't speculate. Stick to your key message. Let the reporter worry about the empty air space.
  • If a reporter asks several questions in a row, pick the one you want to answer. Or, ask the reporter to repeat the question.
  • Have show and tell material. A simple pie chart works well. Have videotape? Take it, too.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity at the end of the interview when the reporter asks if there is anything you'd like to add. Repeat your three talking points and summarize.

Never Do These

  • Never say, "No comment." "No comment" means "guilty" to most people when they hear it.
  • Never say anything "off the record." Assume all microphones are live.
  • The most important rule: Never say anything to a reporter you don't want to see on TV or read on the front page of a newspaper.
  • Never lie to a reporter.
  • Never lose your temper. Be polite, but firm.
  • Never use profanity or slang. Don't say anything that could even remotely be construed to be off-color, sexist or racist. Don't comment on anyone's age, religion, or politics. Tell jokes ONLY if they are self-deprecating.
  • Never say uh. Drop all the uhs from your speech. Make your pauses silent.
  • Never wave your hands. Don't bob and weave your head around. Sit still.
  • Never answer hypothetical questions. Don't speculate. Be specific. Stick to what you know.
  • Never comment on what others have said, particularly if you haven't seen or heard it. Don't verify something that might not be true.
  • Never use doublespeak, government-speak, or jargon. Use numbers in an interesting way. Make your information easy to understand. Personalize your information. Relate it to the reporter. Humanize it.
  • Never talk to a reporter without doing your homework. Prepare. Turn the interview into a sales call.
  • Never stop talking after you've answered a "yes" or "no" question. Keep going. Say something like, "Yes, but you should also know ..." Or "No, but let me elaborate ..." But, keep your response very brief and to the point.

At the Interview

Smile and enjoy yourself. Relax the reporter and you'll be relaxed, too. Tell the reporter you're looking forward to the interview. The best way to diffuse a hostile situation is to be warm and accommodating.

When the interview begins, remember that you are the expert. Don't smile and nod your head as the interviewer asks a question-just look interested.

Make sure your body language and speech patterns back up your sincerity. To combat nervousness that an audience might interpret as insincerity or untruthfulness, sit up straight and take deep breaths. Don't sit back on soft seats. Sit on the forward portion of the seat cushion and keep your back as straight as possible. If your mouth is dry, bite the sides of your tongue-it will make you salivate. Stop talking when you've made your point. Many people say things they didn't mean to say after they've made their major point. Don't worry if there is silence. It isn't your job to fill it up.

Don't let the reporter put words in your mouth. If the reporter uses inaccurate facts when asking a question, correct the error. Don't fall into the black hole of "no comment." Instead say: "That's not the critical issue, this is ..." Or, "That's currently part of a law suit. Our policy is not to discuss ongoing litigation ..." Or, "We'll have an announcement about that later this week."

If this is a TV interview, remember that TV is not always fair. TV's visual impact can make stories more emotional than any other media. You are not seeking the truth-don't let yourself get pulled into such a search. You are not there to answer questions; you're there to elaborate on your three talking points.

Never lose your temper. TV's visual impact will magnify your emotional response.

Let the reporter know you are keeping track of the interview. Ask if you can tape the interview and have a tape recorder ready. Turn it on when the interview starts. Tell the reporter that you want to evaluate how clearly you are answering the questions so that you can be a better source.

Never forget that the interview isn't over until the reporter leaves. TV correspondents commonly shoot B-roll, sometimes called cutaway footage, or cutaways. These are used to fill in the interview so it isn't just a talking head. B-roll also makes the final produced story more visually interesting. Camera crews usually leave the sound on while taping the B-roll. The reporter might ask you again how you really feel about an issue. Make sure you repeat only what was said earlier, as the mike is still live and anything you say is being recorded.

Sometimes, radio or print reporters will also leave their tape recorders running to capture any off- the-cuff remarks that you might make.

If you are giving a telephone interview, assume the reporter is taping the conversation. That way you won't have any regrets later.

At the end of the interview, thank the reporter for the opportunity.

The media world isn't equal: There are inequalities when you agree to a media interview. Reporters can cancel at the last minute. You can't. If you can't make the interview you've agreed to, you must provide a substitute. Reporters can be late, but you can't.

What if the reporter interrupts or tries to rush you?
Ask to finish your statement and begin what you were saying again. Don't start in the middle; make a complete, but succinct, statement.

What if a reporter catches you when you're not prepared and tries to interview you?
Smile and walk away-even if the video camera is rolling and the reporter is sticking a mike in your face. Tell the reporter you're glad to see him or her, but you don't have time to talk now. Give your phone number and suggest they call your office to set up an appointment. Never talk to a reporter unless you've taken the time to prepare.

What if the reporter asks how you "really feel" about an issue?
Give the same answer you gave before. There is no room for your personal opinion, only your professional one. If you don't say it, the reporter can't use it.

What if there is a silent, awkward pause after you've answered a question?
Smile and wait out the pause. The reporter is using one of the most effective techniques in interviewing-getting you to volunteer information. Stop talking when you've made your point.

What if you don't understand the question?
Ask the reporter for clarification. Some reporters don't ask clear questions.

What if you can't think of the answer to the question?
Smile. Be serene. Ask the reporter to repeat or clarify the question while you take a mental break. Buy time by saying, "That's a good question." If you really can't come up with an answer, tell the reporter you need to look it up or consult with someone else and offer to call the reporter later in the day with the answer.

What if you start to answer a question and make a mistake?
Start over. If this is a TV or radio interview, tell the reporter you are going to start over.

"Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read."

- Frank Zappa

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