Saint Tips: 12 rules for developers on Dealing with Reporters

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By Patrick Fox,

President, The Saint Consulting Group

patfoxGiven the public nature and politics of planning, it’s useful to review some rules for developers on dealing with reporters. Here are a dozen worth remembering.

1. NEVER LIE.
Never lie to a reporter. This doesn’t mean you can’t answer only precisely what you are asked, give less information than asked for, or decline to comment entirely. But NEVER, EVER LIE, even when it seems like a good idea, even when it seems like there is little risk. If a reporter catches you in a lie once, you will never have credibility again. And reporters also often go out of the way to make “liars” look bad in print.

2. ANSWER THE CALLS OF THE PRESS.
Reporters will put up with “no comments” or “I’ll check and get back to you” or “I don’t know” or “I can’t say”; but they hate newsmakers who do not take or return phone calls. Reporters do not believe that anyone has anything else to do but talk to reporters on the telephone; so if you don’t take or return their calls, they assume you must be hiding something, deliberately “ducking.” They will assume the worst about you and indicate that in print. Be sure to let office associates know how to get you a message that a reporter is looking for you. Remember, news deadlines are usually “now”, not next week when you have more time.

3. STAY ON THE RECORD.
Newsmakers and spokesmen who deal with the press every day develop relationships that allow them to sometimes “go off the record” (meaning the reporter won’t quote you by name). If you only deal with the press occasionally, always stay “on the record” and assume that everything you say in front of a reporter, even in a social situation, may appear in print with your name on it.
Reporters are paid to find out things that no one else knows, and then tell the world. Going “off the record” makes their jobs tougher, and, if you don’t have a trusting relationship with the reporter, he or she may not honor your request anyway.

Saying “That’s off the record” after you’ve already spilled the beans, of course, does you no good whatsoever.

4. ALWAYS PREPARE FOR AN INTERVIEW.
You can assume that the reporter calling you has done some research, talked to somebody else, or otherwise prepared to interview you, even if that preparation simply consisted of his editor handing him the story assignment with a couple of sentences of instructions.

So you, too, should prepare, especially if you sought out the interview, but even if you are called out of the blue. When a reporter calls, find out why he or she is calling and what she hopes to accomplish in her talk with you. Are you the focus of the story, or just being called to verify some piece of information? Then ask to get back to her after you’ve had time to dig out some facts and decide how to handle the likely questions. Have your facts at hand, prepare a pithy quotable line you can use — which you want her to quote — and determine what your agenda for the interview should be.

5. ALWAYS HAVE AN AGENDA.
Every news interview is an opportunity for you to successfully communicate; to mitigate a problem; to score points for yourself or your organization; or to educate the public about something important to you. So, before you give an interview, plan your agenda; figure out your message or messages; and make a conscious effort to convey those messages several times during the interview.

6. BRIDGE TO YOUR AGENDA.
The reporter may want to talk about one thing, and you may want to talk about something completely different. Use the reporter’s questions to bridge to your own points. If you go back to the Great Communicator, remember how President Reagan could use a press conference question on budget deficits to communicate the administration’s position on “freedom fighters” in Central America.

7. THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK.
Reporters, especially in hostile or controversial situations, may try to trip you up. If you speak before you think, you may give them a quote you did not intend, or paint yourself into a corner. Except in live radio or TV situations, where they can’t afford “dead air,” reporters will generally give you a chance to think what you want to say, before you say it. Always take that opportunity.

8. KEEP YOUR COOL.
While it’s sometimes difficult, never lose your cool in an interview. Reporters will ask stupid questions. They will ask insulting questions. They will ask very personal questions, simply to see how you react. They will probe to see if you are defensive, lying, or hiding something. Don’t fall into this trap. If you lose your cool, you are the one who will look bad, not the reporter. If you lose your temper, you will say something quotable that you will not want to see quoted.
You should also not be offended by reporters who are ignorant. Most reporters cover many different things every day. They know little about you, your profession, your field of expertise, and may not even know elementary facts about the story they are covering. Be patient. Assume they know nothing. And take the time to patiently teach them what they probably should already know.

9. DON’T ACCEPT THEIR DEFINITIONS.
If a reporter asks you a loaded question that makes a statement (e.g., “Since you’re a Freudian, and therefore Pro Life, you must oppose this legislation, so how do you feel about the death penalty?”), you must challenge any and all parts that are not true. If you are not a Freudian, not Pro Life, and/or not opposed to the legislation in question, say so. If you simply answer the question, you may read, “The Freudian, Pro Life Doctor said…”

10. BE AMBIGUOUS ONLY WHEN YOU WANT TO BE.
Generally it is better to be specific. “Yes, I am opposed to House Bill 1234 in its present form.” Ambiguity can lead reporters to put you on whatever side makes for a better story — and you may not be comfortable there.
In some cases, it may be to your advantage to be ambiguous, giving you some room to change your mind later.
Know the difference, and act accordingly.

11. KEEP ANSWERS SHORT WHEN UNDER FIRE.
In a hostile or controversial situation, the less said the better. Longer sentences can open the door to misinterpretation, paint you into a corner, or reveal information that you do not want made public. “No comment”, or “no” or “yes” can be effective ways to minimize trouble.
One way to avoid trouble when you are under fire is to make your statement, and then be quiet. Don’t go on to explain your remarks, or expand upon your vision of the universe. Answer the question asked, then be quiet. If the reporter doesn’t understand, he’ll say so.

12. AVOID JARGON.
Every profession and business has its own words and phrases that are used and understood by people in that profession or business. But when you give interviews to the news media, avoid jargon. They won’t understand it; and will probably misinterpret it.

Even if the reporter is a specialist, or even if you take the time to explain, avoid jargon anyway. The point of dealing with reporters is to communicate. If you use language that the general public doesn’t understand, you will not communicate well.

Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email fox@tscg.biz, phone 781 749 7290

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