So you want to make the papers, be seen or heard on radio or TV – then you need my essential PR Guide to the do’s and don’ts of working with journalists.
As a journalist and a freelance PR specialist, the subject of how to deal with the media is one I absolutely love talking about.
At some point in your business or life journey, you’ll want to work with the media to raise your profile and grow your brand or business.
If you don’t already know about the benefits of being good at media relations, I’ve outlined them here.
You could also come onto the media radar for all the wrong reasons, a reputational crisis, criminality in the workplace, a legal dispute or some other scenario that threatens your personal or professional standing.
Whichever way you ended up on camera or in front of a notebook or microphone, it’s important to know the do’s and don’ts of working with journalists.
This PR Guide contains vital lessons and strategies I’ve learned in over 20 years’ working in media and PR.
I share these with media training clients and think they’ll help you to be more informed and self-assured when being interviewed or responding to media enquiries.
PR Guide – working with Journalists
- Lie or mislead a reporter
This is a golden rule and an ethical line in the sand.
A certain President of the United States may have rewritten the playbook on accuracy, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ but that has not changed the reality that lying publicly or direct to media is a poor strategy for the majority of people.
You’re unlikely to have the clout of a POTUS or command such media interest, but if you have any ambition to build long-term beneficial relationships with media, they need to know they can trust you.
Journalists stake their own reputations on the accuracy of their sources and the value of the information they report. If you contribute to their printing, reporting or posting incorrect or misleading information, you are unlikely to receive a warm welcome next time you speak and certainly don’t expect future coverage.
Word travels fast in newsrooms and if you’re not trustworthy as a source or as a spokesperson, journalists will quickly move onto those that are.
Think carefully about what you want to say and develop disciplined messaging that can be delivered in simple, punchy media-friendly soundbites.
If you know you are going to face difficult lines of questioning, then prepare well, step into the mind of the journalist and your audience and be ready with effective ‘take home messages’ and strong evidential background.
- Say “No Comment” or stonewall
There may be rare times when an organisation or an individual has to use the words “No Comment,” to a journalist, perhaps due to legal restrictions, but generally never reply to a media enquiry with ‘NC,’ or worse ignore their calls or emails.
If a story is potentially harmful to your brand or reputation and a journalist has contacted you for comment, you have the option to leave a vacuum of information – which others can and will fill – or take an active part in the development of the story, seek to influence it and deliver best possible outcomes for you.
No Comment leads to assumptions of guilt or best-case that you have something to hide or are stalling (stonewalling) for time.
No comment means journalists are free to go and find other sources to comment on you and your organisation, some of which may not be fair, or worse, highly critical in their contributions.
Tell your side of the story and be an active participant rather than leaving an information void.
Even in the worst crisis, an organisation can respond professionally and develop an informed intelligent response that the public can evaluate on its merits.
That might be about safety protocols, a track record of successful behaviour, positioning an event as an isolated incident or preparing holding lines about starting an internal investigation.
At this point, you are an active part of the story with the opportunity to respond and potentially shape the narrative.
You can also negotiate with the journalist for time to respond and speak to people in your organisation; so that you can develop a strong statement/ response.
Journalists live and die by deadlines.
If you say you’ll get them some information by a certain point, and you don’t, then don’t be surprised when they don’t run your press releases or take your calls.
If you aren’t featured because you are late supplying information, don’t be surprised.
Remember, you want to be in their newspaper, magazine, blog, podcast or panel discussion.
You are not doing them a favour, they are affording you coverage in a media outlet or time on their platform.
Pull out all the stops and do what you say you’ll do, work with the media to provide stories, images and interviews when you say you will.
- Disappear after you send your news release
Media often complain about being sent a great story and then when they ring back there’s nobody there to speak to about it.
If you’re out for lunch, or on a smoke break, know that a journalist will soon move onto the next story if they can’t get what they need.
Stick around to deal with any return calls – especially with TV and Radio – and especially when you know your story is newsworthy.
If you aren’t sure what makes a great news story, then you might like to read my guide to understanding news and mastering media relations.
Get organised for when they do ring back and have a spokesperson, pictures or more information ready for them to speak to or access.
- Use ‘off the record’
It might seem glamorous to say the words “this is off the record,” and disclose sensitive information to a journalist that you think won’t be attributed to you.
The reality is that words like ‘deep background,’ and ‘off the record’ are fraught with risk for all but the most experienced media managers and operators.
In the world of lobbyists, political journalism and wet Westminster lunches, ‘off the record’ provides people the opportunity to provide reportable information, as long as the source is not identified.
Depending on the value of your information, there is also no guarantee that other journalists won’t seek to follow up on the story resulting from your disclosures and seek to identify you or your company as the source.
British journalism is so fiercely competitive, especially in political and celebrity reporting, that source-hunts are commonplace; and unless you intend to keep your briefing to just one journalist, it’ll likely result in you being named by competing media outlets.
There is also the real possibility that some journalists will not respect ‘OTR’ in the battle to be first with the news.
Think of everything you say to a journalist as being attributable to you.
There is no “safe zone” outside a formal interview, if you say something to a journalist in a bar, lift, toilet or just in passing – consider it attributable.
You need to take ownership of what you say to journalists.
This is your safest bet, don’t say anything you’re not happy to see in print or hear on the radio/TV.
- Oversell your story
It may be tempting to rely on old fashioned enthusiasm and persuasion to try and sell a story idea to a journalist – especially with hyperbole and words like fantastic, one-of-a-kind, best-ever – be wary of this and stay realistic and credible.
Keep it news worthy, factual, straight to the point and related to the key news values every journalist is trained to spot.
Journalists deal in facts and accuracy and want solid reliable information.
If the reality doesn’t live up to what you promised, again the journalist will lose respect for you and find it hard to trust you.
- Ask to see or proof an article
Journalism isn’t advertising.
Agreeing to an interview, feature or article isn’t the same as paying for advertorial space or placing an ad.
You have no entitlement to influence the content or angle of a journalist’s reporting pre-publication. It just doesn’t work like that. It’s best to respect their profession and do a good job during the interactions you do have, namely interview, press launch, briefings.
Make every effort to exert control and influence during interviews to ensure journalists understand and adopt your key messaging.
Say things like: “One thing that really interests me is,” and “I was surprised to learn that,” “not many people recognise the importance of” – these are excellent ways of setting up key messages and laying the ground for further storytelling.
If your quotes are relevant to a highly technical product or concept, you are on safe ground offering to check any quotes or technical data for accuracy. Many journalists are generalists and would welcome this extra fact check on things they may not be experts in.
- Ring a journalist on DEADLINE
Journalists are super busy people. Most prefer to receive story ideas by email, via Twitter or even through old fashioned post, few like to field lots of calls from people with stories for them – it stops them from writing their stories. They’ll ring you if they like something.
Never ring on deadline.
For a daily newspaper journalist, this is anytime between 2.30 and 5pm, for an evening reporter it’s last thing in the day/ first thing in the morning and for TV reporters – the last 3 hours before the evening bulletin.
Likewise, don’t expect the radio news editor to take your call at 12.58, when the 1 o’clock bulletin is about to go live.
Do – think about individual deadlines and lead times for different types of media. Glossy magazines require information 2-3 months in advance for events and feature coverage due to their long leads and flat planning.
Send media information at the start of a new week, Monday morning is ideal, but not at 9am – that’s when a lot of people send releases and your story will be lost in a surge of email from PR’s trying to get in early before the news cycle gets going.
Try slightly more obscure times like 9.45am, 10.20am or 11.30am – so that your email pops up when they’re at their desk and then let your subject line do the hard work.
- HASSLE them to see if they got your release
Journalists hate it when people ring up and say did you receive my press release?
Or when people ring up and say are you going to use my story, and if not, why not?
Your job is to write a great release or briefing note and present all the necessary information (words, pictures, videos, background, contacts) that a journalist needs.
Put effective media monitoring in place. If you are on a budget, then set up Google Alerts for key search terms relating to your story and conduct regular web searches.
You can also try free and low-cost sites like Press Reader for the printed media, which allows you to search on terms for coverage and buy individual articles.
Opting for a free trial (7 or 14 days) with a media monitoring company is also a good way to access media monitoring services for one-off campaigns.
You can also keep a list of any outlets that indicated they would publish and search their websites, check daily news stands when possible. You can always contact the editorial assistants and ask to purchase any back copies. These are low-cost strategies but not everyone can afford an expensive media monitoring contract with Cision, Kantar or Meltwater.
We are just scratching the surface here but it’s a good no-nonsense start to the do’s and don’ts of dealing with journalists.
Remember, your focus should always be on building useful long term relationships with media that are mutually beneficial.
You can achieve this by increasing your knowledge about journalism and what media wants from PR’s, business owners and organisations and learning how to tailor your content to the needs and outlook of specific journalists and media outlets.
I hope you found this PR guide to the do’s and don’ts of working with journalists helpful.
Keep checking back in for more useful content about PR, communications, media relations, media training and digital marketing.