Dealing with the media – a host of helpful hints

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Robert Grace, Plastics News' editorial director and associate publisher, put together a flier back in the newspaper's early days to help our readers deal with the media not just PN, but any newspaper or magazine reporter.

It's been popular with readers, and Bob just updated it at the request someone who'd seen it and wanted to share it with members of his group. So we figured we'd share it with Plastics Blog readers to give it a wider audience:

Dealing with the media – a host of helpful hints

Handling the interview:

Answer a reporter's telephone call. When a reporter calls you, the reporter has identified you as the best source of information. Don't shuffle the reporter off to a press or public relations person who doesn't have your expertise. And don't force the reporter to work through a PR person. The questions, and answers, can get garbled when filtered through a middleman. Also, you lose the opportunity to answer a follow-up question.

Establish the ground rules with the reporter up front. Agree on what basis you are being interviewed before the interview begins:

On the record: As soon as someone says, "I'm a reporter," you are on notice that anything you say can be used in print, quoting you by name, title and company affiliation.

Not for attribution: If you want to answer a reporter's question, but you don't want to be quoted by name, say so first.

Background: You won't be quoted directly or on a not-for-attribution basis on what you say, but the reporter can use the information you provide to gather more information or to confirm it with another source.

Off the record: This often is confused with "not for attribution." Technically, "off the record" means you don't ever want to see in print what you are going to say. Reporters, who are gathering information to report, generally do not consent to off-the-record interviews because they may obtain the information elsewhere. If you wish a certain comment to be off the record, it is vital to say so prior to making the comment – not at the end of the interview. You can go on and off the record, as necessary, but always be clear upfront about your intentions.

Don't assume expertise on the part of the reporter. Yours is a complicated and technical business. You are the expert; the reporter is gathering the news and your views. Reporters frequently cover a vast number of topics, and usually are not as experienced or as well versed in the intricate details of your particular field as you. So don't talk over the reporter's head by using jargon and acronyms. Explain your answers as fully as possible.

• Presume innocence and competence on the part of the reporter. Reporters take pride in the quality of their work and want to do a fair and accurate story. They are not your adversary. There is nothing to be gained by opening a conversation by calling a reporter's publication a "rag" or by suggesting that all reporters "get it wrong anyway." Most successful business relationships are built on a premise of mutual trust and respect.

Understand the reporter's mission. A business newspaper's job is to report fairly and fully on issues that impact its readership, positively or negatively – it is not to be an industry cheerleader. Pursuit of this mission can involve writing about topics that some might believe are sensitive or proprietary, and may lead to reporters occasionally asking hard questions about difficult subjects. This is part of the reporter's job. Understanding that can help you to remain patient and to provide accurate answers.

Provide background. You will not be "taken out of context" when you give a reporter a context for your remarks. Spend enough time to be sure the reporter understands the broad picture. This can be accomplished in a short period of time, depending on the scope of the questions.

Understand and appreciate deadlines. The presses roll on time no matter what. The story is going to press without your comments if you don't return a call by deadline.

Don't threaten or intimidate. You can't control the press (or at least that part of the press that practices good journalism) and therefore it is unreasonable and unproductive to try to do so. If you are consistently able to have your way with a publication – either in planting "puff" stories or in modifying or killing unfavorable stories – then the publication is unlikely to command credibility or respect from its readers, most of whom quickly recognize such shortcomings.

Don't rush, second guess or dodge when answering questions. Take your time to formulate your answers and speak slowly. If you rush, the reporter may not get the full and accurate quote. If you guess when you answer, you may be wrong, and inevitably that is what will be printed. If you dodge, the reporter will read hidden meanings into your answers.(By the way, you have not been "misquoted" if a reporter accurately reports something inaccurate you said or something you should not have said.)

Don't stonewall. Denying the obvious ruins your credibility. If you can't or won't answer a question, say so right away – be courteous by not simply ignoring a reporter's repeated phone calls, in the hope he or she will go away. You can save both parties a lot of time and aggravation by making your position known promptly. If possible, explain why you cannot answer a given question. Your honesty will be appreciated.

Follow up quickly with a reporter by telephone. If you realize after the interview that you forgot to make an important point or provided incorrect information, immediately telephone the reporter. Don't dictate a letter. The article may be going to press that day, or perhaps even online within hours or even minutes.

Urge the reporter to call you back. Reporters realize you are busy and may be hesitant to call you back for clarification of a remark unless you specifically tell the reporter you are available for follow-up remarks.

Provide written copies of speeches. If you are delivering prepared remarks, provide the reporters in the audience with copies of your speech before you begin. They can follow the text and better understand your message.

Ask the reporter to read back the direct quotes that may be attributed to you or to summarize your remarks for you. This will reveal whether the reporter has understood what you have been saying. Since much of what you said may be paraphrased in the article, this also will give you an idea of how your remarks will be written. You should make a ground rule at the beginning of an interview because some publications' reporters may not agree to do this otherwise. If the reporter reads back any notes, you can correct inaccuracies but you cannot decide to strike a quote or comment from the record.

When you have a story to tell:

Go directly to the editorial department. If you have a story to pitch or an editorial-related concern or complaint, call the editor or relevant reporter. Never ask an advertising salesperson to relay the information.

Keep church and state separate. Don't tell a reporter that your company is an existing or potential advertiser. Such information is irrelevant to newsworthiness and can be counterproductive. Good reporters resent the implication that commercial considerations might color how they report a story.

Don't ply journalists with gifts and "freebies." Though some journalists will always be willing to take what you give, others are offended by the implication that they can "be bought." Simplify matters: Take the high road, and limit your generosity to giving good information in a timely manner.

Expect a well-rounded story, tapping various sources. Newspapers don't want a one-source story, which relies solely on a company executive extolling the virtues of his or her firm. Anticipate that the reporter will seek out other sources – financial analysts, suppliers, customers, even competitors – for comments about your company and your claims, to further enhance the story's credibility. If your firm is publicly traded, you can help by suggesting the names of industry analysts who track your company.

A story is not a big story simply because an executive thinks it is. It is human nature to overvalue stories in which one is personally involved. Press-wise officials understand this, and do not lose their cool when the latest company announcement doesn't make Page 1. Making unrealistic demands only strains press relations, which benefits no one.

If you seek publicity, have something to say, and be prepared to answer questions. Too often, companies hold ill-conceived press conferences with little fresh news to offer. Journalists are busy, too, and want valuable information in return for investing their time.

Be proactive – communicating is a two-way street. Make an effort to learn if a publication is working on a story or a special report in which you would like to have input, and then make your interest and availability for comment known to the editor. Don't wait to be approached, and then complain if you never get called for comment.

When things go wrong:

Be aware that reporters don't write headlines, determine story play, or have the final say in how a story reads or how it is written. Editors do. And we make some of the mistakes that appear in our reporters' stories.

Bring any published errors to the editor's attention immediately. Publications want the stories they publish to be correct. If you are aware of an error in a published story, let the editor know right away. Publications use their previously published stories as source material for future stories, which is one reason why it is important to "set the record straight." Also, with the proliferation of additional means of news dissemination – whether online, in electronic databases and social media – it is vital to correct an error before it gets propagated elsewhere.

Important things to recognize and to do:

Reward a publication's initiative. When approached for an interview by a reporter or editor, don't deny the interview for fear of negative reaction from other industry publications that might feel they weren't given "equal opportunity." If those publications were interested in your story, they would have asked, too.

Be aware that we like it best if we get it first, and while it's fresh. We are in the news business, and the newsier a story is, the better we like it. If you open a plant, don't wait two months for the official grand opening to notify the media – by then the hard-news angle already is dated. And since news organizations are competitive like you are, we like exclusives. That's not to say all exclusives will get big play, but we are more likely to display an exclusive prominently than a story already announced to other media.

Spend time building relationships with editors and reporters. As in all forms of business, it is easier and preferable to communicate with someone you have met or know, than with a total stranger. Openness and willingness to work with the press enhances the possibility of your story being told accurately and fairly – and sometimes, even at all.

The whole process is grounded in trust. This is the bottom line. We have to trust the news generator to give us complete and accurate information. The news generator has to trust us to make good, fair and objective judgments about what we do with that information. And we at Plastics News have to trust our instincts about what the readers want and need. That's what we're paid and trained to do.

(Bob adds these acknowledgments: "I'd like to thank two former Crain Communications Inc. colleagues – Kathryn J. McIntyre, formerly of Business Insurance and Ron Alridge, formerly of Electronic Media – whose well-crafted words and thoughts on these subjects I have adapted and augmented in the process of compiling the above guidelines.")