Media Relations: When NOT to Speak to a Reporter and How to Say No- Nicely
Updated: Sep 21
Our Move the Stairs Friday chat this week is a COMPLETE OPPOSITE compared to what we shared with you last week. This week, we discussed ways you can evaluate whether or not you should be talking to the media, ways to thoughtfully decline an interview and lastly some real-life scenarios clients of ours have been through where they chose not to speak with the media or waited to speak with the media.
You'll find a link to the video discussion at the bottom of this blog, or take a look at the summary of everything we covered today!
As former journalists, we understand the power of being prepared for an interview and being able to deliver a clear, concise and comprehensive message. However, there are times when it may not make sense to agree to be interviewed or seek out media to clarify what you perceive to be an egregious, outstanding issue. It's a fine line to walk, like the "Knife's Edge" of Torrey's Peak, a 14,000' foot mountain in Colorado.
If you watched last week's video, some of this advice will seem familiar because whether you grant or respectfully decline an interview request, the initial process is the same.
Media Relations 101: What to say when a journalist wants an interview
Always, ask the reporter questions before agreeing to an interview. Here are some of the questions we always ask:
What is your deadline?
What is the story about so I can make sure I can get you the best person to interview?
It's okay to say, "If I understand what you are looking for, I can better answer your questions," or "I may know someone who is more of an expert in this area and would be a better interview for you."
What show or publications is this for? This is a very important question. If you know where a future news piece will be published, you'll have a better understanding of the angle or lean of the article. Remember, many newspaper journalists are freelance, right now, meaning they could be writing for a number of different publications. Also, the interview is just a portion of the story production. Editors will set headlines, teases and edit copy.
Now, do your research on the reporter and publication(s). If you're not sure who they are or aren't familiar with who they work for, take some time and research them online and on Twitter. It's okay to say, "I will call you back in 15 minutes" especially because you already know their deadline! This is also a good time to see if there are any statistics or metrics they need for their story that it might take additional time to gather.
Three Times You Should Tread Carefully When Responding to a Media Request
Politically charged situations: If there is an extremely divisive or polarizing situation (think protests or stories that are making the national news broadcasts) and reporters are looking to “localize” the story (this means they are trying to get a local perspective on a national news story), be very careful how your customers will respond to your interview. Remember, they will always see it through their perspective. How will your answers impact how customers view your business or brand?
Updating a controversial situation that impacts your business: If your brand has been involved or, in your opinion, unfairly targeted for specific business practices, but the noise surrounding the controversy has passed, should you bring new evidence to light that may, in your opinion, exonerate your brand? This is a difficult question because you risk bringing the controversy back to the headlines and all of the work you've spent refilling your trust bucket may be dumped out again.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
What video has already been shown on the news?
Will media be reusing the same video or images depicting the controversy all over again?
Remember the adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words." If the information is so compelling that it needs to be released, then weigh your options. You could potentially join with an industry or trade association and release your statement with new video (to avoid rehashing the controversy through the old video) and build a stronger case with others at your side.
Responding to a story or social media post where you don’t think your side was adequately represented: Many times, clients will be outraged by what they feel is unfair coverage. The tone of the story may feel like a personal attack on their brand. Or, people may completely misunderstand your product. For example, let's say that you own a CBD company and did an incredible interview with a local news organization about your products. The interview went really well, but a string of Facebook comments on the posted story attacks CBD users and labels them "drug addicts." Do you respond? Here's what we think:
Look to see how many people are engaging with the post or individual, inflammatory comment.
What are they saying?
Will you make the situation better by responding to every post that's critical of your brand?
Will your response fan the flames and lead to a larger problem?
How M&C Communications helped clients make the decision not to comment even though they wanted to
Changin' times & immigration: This is a great example of a politically charged situation. For one of our clients, Rocky Ford Growers Association, legal immigrants have been coming from Mexico to work the fields for years and in some cases generations. Their growers take excellent care of the immigrant workers, providing living conditions and keeping their health and safety top of mind while they work. However, in the past few years, immigration has become extremely polarizing. A story once painting positivity, years ago, we would now not pitch due to the potential negativity for their brand.
The waiting game: Sticking with our Rocky Ford Grower's Association theme, a decade ago, an erroneous story about Rocky Ford cantaloupe containing listeria was released and went viral. Yes, there was a listeria outbreak where hundreds got sick and more than 30 people died across a dozen states. However, the outbreak was traced back to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado. This was a farm 90 miles away from Rocky Ford! However, they were using the "Rocky Ford" name in association with their cantaloupe. While these incredibly proud Rocky Ford farmers wanted to immediately speak up to clear their name, it didn't matter what they said! At the time, if anyone used "Rocky Ford" and "cantaloupe" in the same sentence, it was linked to the outbreak 90 miles away. Instead, the story needed to be updated with a clear recovery campaign that included new video, new messaging about health & safety and some high profile figures not afraid to take a bite out of the real Rocky Ford Cantaloupe. This is a great example of a brand being wrongfully convicted and clearing their name the correct way.
The case of ignorance: In 2020, everyone loves a good headline. When a client of ours was attacked on social media, a platform where the complexities or intricacies of any scenario are often ignored, we stepped in to help. Of course, they wanted to clear their name! It was a big misunderstanding! They wanted to respond immediately. After all, not only were the attacks unfair, they were unfounded. We did an evaluation of the reach and engagement of the posts, prepared messaging in case the story was picked up by media, and closely monitored the situation.
In this case, reach and engagement was small, insignificant really. Instead of engaging, which is what the people posting (likely social media trolls wanted), we prepared behind the scenes and waited. Shortly thereafter, the posts stopped. However, had the media picked up the story, instead of spending energy arguing online, we would have provided evidence to refute the claims and call out the individuals for slandering our client.
Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Taking an Interview About an Existing Story
The questions below will look familiar because that's your downloadable one-sheet, available at the bottom of this blog! In our video, Diane and I went through all 12 questions and offered our strategies.
Will this interview fairly represent my business?
Will this interview help to promote my business?
Is this a topic I want to talk about?
Is this currently a polarizing topic in the general public?
If I comment, how will people with different perspectives respond?
Is this an opportunity to position me as a thought leader on this topic?
Am I personally prepared for the repercussions of those who disagree with me?
Is their new information I want to publicize enough to change public opinion and move the story forward?
What are the visuals the media already has for this story and do I need to provide anything additional?
Should I join a larger group to release new information?
Do I need to respond or be part of this story today?
What do I need to plan and what items (message points, video, outreach tactics, media training) do I need to prepare while I am monitoring the story, post, etc.
How to Nicely Decline an Interview
Never, ever, EVER say "No comment." As a journalist, this leads me to believe that you have something to hide, even though you probably don't. To thoughtfully get around this issue, you can do one of the following:
Learn as much as you can about the reporter and the media outlet they work for. If a reporter for Fox News Channel and CNN asks you the same question and you give them both the same answer, 10/10 times their articles will be very, very different.
Always call the reporter back when you said you would. Reporters don't like to be "ghosted" especially in TV when they are on tight deadlines. They will remember it. While their journalist integrity prevents them from holding a grudge, don't expect them to go out of their way to grant your brand any positive PR in the near future.
Pitch a fellow expert in your industry. Sometimes you will have nothing to hide at all, but the questions a reporter may be asking are beyond your scope of knowledge. Is there anyone else you can call during your 15 minutes of research to take the interview for you? Reporters won't see this as you "ducking an interview" but will be appreciative that you took the time to introduce them to a new contact.
Ask for written questions. Answer factual questions and send back the answers promptly. You may say that these are the only questions that you will answer at this time. When writing your answers, always think of the M&C three (best friend, worst enemy and grandmother).
Give a written statement: If this story is about you or your company and you don’t want to comment. Tell the reporter you will send a written statement and that is all you are going to do. Thank them, get off the phone and deliver on your statement.
M&C Communications specializes in CBD public relations, crisis communications and media training. Follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter for the very latest on public relations and communications.