Attack Reporters At Your Own Risk

Newsmakers are human beings too and they can get their feelings hurt. And, like most of us, they sometimes react by attacking. But when a newsmaker attacks a reporter, the results often backfire on the newsmaker.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan got into a tussle with a reporter on December 21, 2005. Annan was facing unpleasant questions from James Bone of the London Times regarding his son’s business dealings. Here is what Annan said to Bone according to Reuters:

“I think you’re being very cheeky. Listen, James Bone, you’ve been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy for many, many months and years…You are an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession. Please stop misbehaving and please let’s move to a serious subject.”

I’m sure Annan felt good after attacking the reporter. Annan may even have been well justified in putting the reporter. And he may have been right. But was it a good press strategy for Annan to do this? Did it advance the Secretary-General’s image?

I think no and no.

The headline in the Reuter’s story flashed around the world was , “Annan Assails Reporter In Rare Show Of Anger.” How does that help Annan?

The lead sentence in the story was “U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anna lost his diplomatic cool with a reporter…” Again, nothing flattering about Annan.

One has to assume Annan was tired of reporters writing stories about the alleged controversies surrounding his son’s business activities. If Annan’s goal was to reduce the spotlight on that issue, then he failed miserably.

So what was the message Annan really wanted to focus on that day? I have no idea—and no one else does either, because Annan’s anger pushed his other messages off of the table that day.

Annan made several mistakes this day by violating the following rules.

- Never attack unless you want your attack to be quoted and the focus on your quotes in the story.

- Never critique the quality of a reporter’s question (“you are an embarrassment…to your profession”). Nobody cares what a newsmaker’s opinion is of the reporter.

- Never try to overtly manipulate a reporter to another subject (“let’s move to a serious subject.”) Annan can bridge to another topic if he wishes, but he can’t decree what topics are serious or important—only reporters get to do that in the context of an interview or press briefing.

So be careful if you attack someone, especially a reporter. There may be times when you do need to attack or criticize someone. But make sure you have thought out every single strategic angle of how your attacks will be played out BEFORE you launch your first unkind word.

TJ Walker is the president of Media Training Worldwide. You can sign up for his free online media training school at

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