With a constant 24 hour news cycle and one that can be disrupted and sometimes driven by citizen journalism, businesses must make it a priority to establish policies and protocols for speaking with the press. It’s important to plan ahead and create procedures for dealing with media if you hope to control your message once you are in the public eye. A reporter’s job is to get the facts and put out a clear and concise story, but they work with what they have, and what is clearly communicated to them. Meaning, the more prepared you are as an interviewee, the better and more accurate the story. If you don’t already have a media relations policy, it’s time to get to work.
A media relations policy should include identified spokespeople and messaging, what to do when a reporter calls your business, and how to approach a reporter regarding inaccuracies. The more prepared you are, the more successful your media interactions and the reporting about you or your business will be.
First, identify who is approved to speak to the press, and communicate that throughout your business. We have a protocol in my company that dictates notifying me directly when a reporter calls, and only having the press talk to me about company or client matters. Include something similar in your employee manual and be sure to share it so everyone knows what to do if/when a reporter calls about you or your business. Knowing who is authorized to speak to the press can help reduce the chances of being caught off guard or saying something wrong, or inaccurate.
Consider the risks of agreeing to (or denying) an interview. What’s the reporter’s angle and will it have a positive or negative impact on your business? It’s ok to ask what the goal of the interview is, and to be comfortable with that before deciding how to proceed. Sometimes unplanned interviews, such as speaking to the press during a crisis, can create other potential risks – such as legal implications, or long term reputation management issues. While you don’t want a lack of immediate response to seem like you’re hiding something, speaking to the press before you have accurate information to share can further damage your business and reputation. Take your time, and have distinct, approved messages on hand.
It’s best to avoid saying something “off the record.” Just because you have established a relationship with a reporter, or think the interview is over, doesn’t mean you should assume everything you say isn’t still fair game. An off-handed remark or snide comment, even one said in presumed confidence, can still prove damaging to your brand. Remember two words before ever saying something you wouldn’t want to end up in the press– Anthony Scaramucci. While most reporters would never betray a promise to keep information confidential when agreed to in advance, don’t risk saying something you wouldn’t be comfortable saying in public, and never assume anything is confidential.
While “off the record” isn’t advised, sometimes it may be appropriate to go “on background.” This is often done when information is available that a reporter might find useful for a story, but that can’t or shouldn’t be attributed to the person providing the details or associated with the conversation. If an interviewer chooses to go this route, all agreements should be made in advance of the actual interview; an interviewee can’t provide interesting information that is relevant to the story and then later declare that it was “on background” when their name shows up in the story.
Remember that a microphone may always be on, or a camera recording; avoid saying anything that could be misinterpreted, or that could result in negative coverage for you or your business. We’ve all seen the news stories about what happens when “private” conversations get recorded by mistake or otherwise. Should you find yourself in a situation where something you said gets misinterpreted or inaccurately reported, it’s perfectly acceptable to call the reporter and ask that they correct it – but that only applies when it’s their mistake, not yours.
Planning is everything; establish media protocols, identify approved spokespeople, and openly communicate your policies within your business. The best time to do all of this is long before you need any of it, making the effort more proactive than reactive. When in doubt about how or where to start, or if you find yourself in a crisis and need help, it might help to look to a professional for guidance.