If this is the first interaction you have ever had with a reporter, and you do not have a sound media-handling protocol in place, you might feel you or your media team need to go straight to full gladiator mode.
Stay calm, put your weapons down, and try to keep in mind that while the journalist is not your best friend, they don’t have to be the enemy either.
Defaulting to an unnecessarily defensive position will antagonise a reporter – they are only human. But a measured, straightforward and helpful approach will better allow you to control the conversation, and to set its boundaries.
It is always possible to find exceptions, but journalists are generally professional people doing a very worthwhile job that has clearly defined and well-understood parameters.
A crisis in your organisation might well be newsworthy, and that means there will be demand for certain pieces of information, or certain individuals’ reactions. This may feel uncomfortable, but it is a reality for which it is prudent to prepare.
Here are things to think about when a reporter comes calling.
Be timely, and straight
By the time a journalist gets around to contacting you, they will already have done some digging, or been given some information. Google will have been trawled for references to you, your organisation, or an employee, and a list of questions prepared.
If you have had problems in the past that attracted negative publicity, you can count on a reporter who is worth their salt dredging these up.
It is important to be ready for the past to be brought up but do not allow yourself to become bogged down by it.
Give the sense you are comfortable with acknowledging the past, but remain focused on the current issue at hand.
First impressions count
In the early stages of your dealings with the reporter you may wish to issue a holding statement while your own investigations get under way.
It is best to do this without undue delay. A journalist pursuing a story will quickly pick up on any reticence during that all-important first contact, so ensure you project a professional, co-operative and businesslike demeanour. Reticence might indicate there is something you are hiding, and so the line of questioning might become more probing.
Stick to the point
Keep communications clear and concise. If you don’t know the answer to a question, try not to improvise an answer, or be tempted by the reporter to speculate.
If you believe the premise of the question to be false – the premise can be explicit or implied – do not hesitate in rejecting it. Explain why, and resist being drawn into what you believe to be a flawed line of questioning.
There is no imperative to accept a premise that you know is unfair or ill-informed and to allow a quotable response to be based on it. You can use this as an opportunity to move the discussion in the direction you believe to be the right one. Always do so in a rational way, and without rancour.
Fact not fluff
It is a popular misconception that journalists are steamrollers.
They should be broadly aware of the dynamics at play when an organisation is trying to sort out a crisis, and while they will not pass up an opportunity to exploit a weakness, should they find one, they will generally be receptive to a reasoned holding statement. They will, however, be back for details, and you need to be ready for them.
Journalists have every right to ask questions. It’s worth remembering they frequently do so on behalf of the public. It is sensible to accept the legitimacy of their enquiry rather than waste emotional or corporate energy railing against it.
With this in mind, it is useful to as yourself: ‘What questions would a reasonable person want to know in these circumstances?’.
Working with your legal and communications advisers, go through the crisis and identify the key facts you are able to release. If the matter has been referred to a regulator, inform the journalist of this. Explain which regulator, the likely timetable for any adjudication procedure.
If an investigation is under way, explain you are co-operating fully.
Every case is different, of course, but don’t necessarily be afraid of giving journalists context – facts and figures concerned with the business, the number of people employed on the site, a little bit of history, perhaps. Being helpful is not incriminating.
The journalist is one of your gateways to the wider world. Establish solid lines of communication and trust with a reporter at an early stage, and you will increase the chance of being given a fair, accurate hearing in the media.
Developing and maintaining good relationships with journalists, particularly those in the trade press, forms a part of many organisations’ communications strategies, and this can often play a vital part in any reputational recovery process.
So, far from seeing a journalist’s attentions through a prism of panic or paranoia, it will serve your organisation’s purposes best to greet their enquiries in a spirit of co-operation, confidence and calm.