After more than 20 years as a journalist, there are two people I interviewed whom I will never forget – the man who sent me a bouquet of flowers after I wrote an article in which I mentioned his book and a famous TV comedienne who scribbled a note to my editor to tell him that she had never been more impressed with the integrity of a journalist in her life (she had told me some juicy, on-the-record stuff about her love life that I took out of my story after she called back to ask me not to print it).
With at least 1,500 articles to my credit during my professional career, I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of times I have gotten a note or even a phone call from someone about whom I wrote, despite the fact that dozens of them received invaluable publicity as a result. I have every one of those little notes tucked away in a file, and it always gives me a lift when I stumble upon them and take just a moment to glance over those words of gratitude.
Old-fashioned manners go a long way
So here may be possibly the most important hint you’ll ever get about dealing with the media: Use simple good manners. Few others bother. Manners – common courtesy – propel you above the crowd and go a long way towards helping you be a memorable source for stories – and it doesn’t cost a thing.
Well, it does cost the price of a first class stamp if you write a letter rather than call – and I do recommend letters – even more than e-mails. Letters can be strategically taped on an office monitor for others to see or can be photocopied and gotten into the hands of the right people, like the editor who will be in charge of your annual review.
Look at it from the reporter’s standpoint. Brownie points can be more rewarding than a raise or might even lead to a raise or promotion, so why not be a part of that if you can? Helping someone who is favorably disposed towards your company look good or achieve a more powerful job can only work in your favor.
Paul Buttrose, a founder of the former Treasure Coast Brewing Company in Stuart, Florida (which has since been sold), took time within 24 hours of any media coverage to write a note to the editor or reporter, even if the news item about their McCoy beer only involved a one or two-line mention. When a local weekly ran a story about the brewery one week, Paul wrote a thank-you letter. The following week, the newspaper ran his letter in the “letters to the editor” column. The brewery got exposure two weeks in a row.
Respond promptly to media calls
When you’ve reached out to the media, be prepared to handle the response efficiently. You wouldn’t go bass fishing, then fall asleep on the job and not reel in the fish when he tugs on the line. Return calls from the media promptly. Depending on varying deadline requirements, you may have anywhere from 10 minutes to a day to return a call before the reporter finds someone else or loses interest.
Instruct your staff to be especially responsive and professional on the telephone when someone from the media calls. If the person answering doesn’t sound like he or she is too sharp, it doesn’t leave a particularly good impression on the caller.
If you expect media calls and are going to be out of the office, be sure someone else can answer questions or you can be located quickly. There’s nothing more annoying to a reporter than having to nag a source to return calls.
Don’t try to avoid a sticky situation.
This advice goes for those dicey situations as well where you’re on the hot seat and wish no one knew your name.
It’s far better to face the media head-on, answer their questions as honestly as you can and move on than to run and hide (it didn’t work when you were a kid and threw a baseball through the neighbor’s window and it won’t work now).
Remember, if you’re involved in a controversial situation, if you don’t speak up, others may speak for you, and you may not like what they have to say (in other words, you’ll end up in the woodshed whereas you might have only ended up standing in the corner).
Make sure it’s a good time to talk.
If you ever call a media source, it’s polite to ask if he or she is on deadline and, if not, has a few moments to talk. Your courtesy will be appreciated and you’ll get a more attentive ear when the time is right.
When the interview rolls around, have plenty of written resource materials on hand. A well-crafted press kit can be worth its weight in gold and subtly guide the reporter’s questions in such a way that you derive maximum benefit.
Be succinct and brief.
When giving an interview please, please, PLEASE keep your answers short and to the point, especially if you’re being interviewed on TV or radio. Answer questions in the simplest way you know how.
An acquaintance was interviewed once on a Sunday morning business show on the local NBC affiliate. The moderator asked him, “How did you get into the insurance business?” Seven minutes later, he was still reeling off his history, and there were only three minutes left to talk about the real purpose of the interview.
Reporters know exactly what they need from you and want answers to those specific questions, not a dissertation on your own agenda. If the reporter wants more details, he or she will ask for elaboration.
Let the reporter be “the boss.”
It’s a mistake to believe that you are in charge of what’s going to be written. The reporter has an angle or slant to go after, and you’d be wise to pick up on what that is. If you aren’t comfortable going along with it, you can conclude the interview, but if it’s simply not what you hoped it would be, go with the flow. Each time you get free media exposure, you up your credibility and enhance your public image.
Don’t be demanding about the angle or content.
For one story I approached a man who is an authority on handwriting analysis who asked if the national magazine I was writing the article for would publish an 800 ordering number for his book. I said no, that it wasn’t the magazine’s policy. He proceeded to grill me as to why, to rail about the stupidity of the policy and told me he’d have to think about whether he’d do the interview or not.
Guess what I did. I sought another source… and he ended up losing exposure to two million people. So he didn’t get his number mentioned. Who knows what he missed out on? He’ll never know.
Was it worth it? I guess you’d have to ask him.
Follow the Golden Rule
To sum it all up, if you want to get along with the media and benefit from what they have to offer, follow the Golden Rule. Be polite, responsive and considerate.