by Lori Prosio 

I recently helped a client who suddenly found herself facing a flurry of media inquiries. We’d discussed key messages and potential story angles. What we hadn’t talked about was her comfort level in talking to reporters or her experience handling tough media situations. Normally I cover those details during media training, but this was an unusual situation. The story had been leaked, significantly accelerating our timing.

During an interview, she was asked a question she wasn’t prepared to answer. She decided to defer to me ­— and told the reporter she would have her public relations consultant call him back with an answer. When she told me about it, she said “I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t expect him to ask that question.”

I gave him the information he needed and everything ended up fine. In fact, the story was so well received by the media, my client ended up getting national news coverage.

The moral to the story is, anytime you talk to the media, you need to be ready for even the trickiest of circumstances. Here are some general guidelines.

Be prepared. Know your key messages and have talking points ready — but also, as my example above illustrates, go through media training before you speak with the press. A PR professional can help with this, even conducting on-camera interview training so that you’ll know how to handle that pressure.

Limit the number of people who take media calls. Only a select few media relations specialists should have permission to answer inquiries. Make sure that designated media contacts are prepared to discuss your company, handle crisis situations and are comfortable with reporter inquiries. Minimizing the number of sources reduces confusion and inconsistency.

Employees who answer phones should ask for the journalist’s name, company, contact information, question topic and deadline so they can pass the information along to the company’s media contact.

Stay up-to-date on company and industry happenings. Make it a daily habit to review the news and take note of anything happening in your industry. Sign up for Google Alerts or a similar service — this allows you to identify key words that will generate an e-mail as these terms are published online. This tool is incredibly useful for keeping apprised when your company is creating a buzz and allows you to be prepared for media inquiries.

Be wary of speaking “off the record.” Speaking off the record is an informal understanding that the information being shared is unofficial and should not be used. Media relations specialists often speak off the record in order to foster relationships with a reporter, but keep in mind that this approach can backfire, so use it with caution.

Earning constructive media coverage is one of the best ways to build a customer base. Positive media issues might include a story about your company or even a request for an industry spokesperson, such as an accountant giving tax advice on the news.

Make sure you really know the issue. If you’re an accountant who is new to California and don’t feel qualified to discuss state taxes as requested, that’s OK. It’s perfectly acceptable to refer a trusted colleague who is more capable of speaking to the issue. If you do feel comfortable giving advice, only provide the reporter with substantive, factual information that can be supported.

Follow up and try to maintain the relationship. Positive media coverage is a fantastic PR tool, so do your best to maintain relationships with journalists. Send a note or e-mail, thanking your contact for the experience and expressing your willingness to provide information in the future.

Be prepared for negative calls as well. Perhaps a disgruntled employee has contacted the media, or one of your products is facing a recall. How you handle the inquiry affects how your company is portrayed.

Don’t act defensive. This attitude conveys guilt — blameworthy or not. Remain as cooperative as possible. Being rude will make reporters more apt to convey your reticence in the story — which they’re going to write whether you like it or not!

Avoid the phrase “no comment.” Using this phrase alone implies “I have something to hide.” Of course, I realize that there are times you really cannot comment — as an accountant, for example, you can’t discuss your clients’ financial information. However, giving a more detailed response explains your reasoning and doesn’t seem as suspicious. For example, “For the protection and confidentiality of our clients, it is our policy not to disclose information to anyone other than the client in question.”

Call back later if you need to. It’s acceptable to tell the caller that you’re in the middle of something and ask to call back in an hour or so. This allows you to gain composure, think about what your statements should be, and ensure you’re giving accurate information that will best portray your company. It also gives you some time to look into the reporter and review recent articles, if you aren’t familiar with him or her already.

Consider every media inquiry an opportunity rather than a frustration. Creating a mutually beneficial relationship with the media can help you better promote your business in the long run.

This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2011 edition of the Sacramento Business Journal.