Three Tips for Handling a Call from a Reporter

May 26, 2011

The old image of a reporter from CBS’s “60 Minutes” bursting into a room with the camera running and asking embarrassing questions made for good television, but 99 percent of the time that never happens.  In fact, most reporters are hard working people just looking to write a story that informs and/ or entertains their readers or viewers, and their call provides you with an opportunity to tell your story.  Here are three tips to make sure you are prepared to return their call.

First and foremost, be polite, not adversarial.  If the reporter called while you were out, return their call as soon as you can.  Timeliness is everything – they have a deadline to meet and calling days later doesn’t help.  Think of your return call as gathering information. If you pick up the call this is also your opportunity to gather information don’t feel the need to answer their questions immediately  let them know that while you do not have that information in front of you at this time you will call them back in 30 minutes with an answer.  This will allow you time to collect your thoughts and double check your information.  One of the worst things you can do is make a random guess at an answer.  Just be honest.  When do you call back, make sure you have your notes and facts in front of you.

Second, be as concise as possible in your answer.  Often people get in trouble with the press because they don’t know when to stop talking.  Stick to your facts, stick to your field of knowledge and unless you can back up your answer with solid information, try to avoid answering hypothetical questions.  If you don’t know the answer say you can follow up by providing another source or doing additional research.  Additionally, do not feel the need to talk through the pauses in the conversation just stick with your talking points.    

Third, be aware that “off the record” really doesn’t mean you are safe.  Tell the reporter instead “I don’t want to be quoted on this, but I can give you some background.” Don’t say something that could bring up problems or appear as criticism.  If you are doing a television interview, remember that the camera is always running.  Until that camera is taken off the tripod and put on the ground or in the truck, just assume it is on (both video and audio).

Read more tips about talking with reporters from American Express at:

What is your biggest fear about talking to a reporter? Share the experiences you’ve had – good as well as bad.  Have you had an exchange with a reporter that resulted in a story that was embarrassing for you or your firm? Was it due to something in your exchange that in hindsight you realized you could have handled better?

Jim Jennings – Sr. Manager External Communications

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