I was two beers into my weekend last Friday when a reporter from the West Coast called to confirm something with me. I had spoken to her a few days earlier for about twenty minutes, talking about a subject I knew pretty darn well.
"OK, so, I just want to make sure I got this right. You worked with John Doe [not his real name] and did business with him?" the reporter asked.
"No," I said, "we were in the same business at the same time and crossed paths every so often. I had no relationship with him though and he probably has no recollection of me."
"Great, gotcha," the reporter said.
Gotcha indeed, because when the story was published, it sounded as if I was the guy's best friend.
The error I committed occurred during our original phone call. I spoke too fast, went off on tangents, and I did not qualify some of my remarks. In the end, the reporter burned me, but I lit the fuse.
One of the joys of writing this column is that it helps me think through my own public relations issues. By putting ideas down on paper (OK, a computer screen), I've helped improve my own PR skills immensely. I still have some work to do, but I'm getting there. As such, this week I've come up with a set of rules for dealing with reporters on the phone. Hopefully, I can follow them.
1. Speak Slowly
Unfortunately, journalists are not stenographers and they sometimes have a hard time keeping up with what you have to say. When speaking to a reporter, act as if you are leaving an important voicemail message for someone to ensure what you say is accurately reflected.
After you've said a mouthful, take a few moments to breathe and let the reporter catch up with what you have said. A moment of silence can be golden for a reporter who is desperately trying to type or write down the pearl of wisdom that has just left your mouth.
3. Be Kind, Rewind
Don't be shy about repeating something you just said if it's something you feel should be emphasized. This, again, helps ensure the accuracy of your comments. It also helps the reporter remember what you feel is the most important element of your comments.
4. Explain, Explain, Explain
Some reporters, especially young reporters, are wary about asking their sources or interview subjects to explain something. Sometimes, however, you can tell that the reporter just does not have a clue what you are talking about. If you feel this is the case, let the reporter know that you are willing to walk him or her through the material you just covered.
5. On Point
Stay on message because otherwise you will confuse the journalist. I am the King of Tangents, which can be problematic because those tangents tend to swing back to the subject at hand. This then leads the journalist to believe that everything I've just said was material to conversation. As a result, some of my tangential comments end up in stories and seem out of place.
6. Understand the Reporter's Brain Capacity
Not all people or reporters are created equal and I have no problem admitting that I've spoken to some not-so-sharp reporters over the years. My fears tend to be realized when I see myself quoted in a story and my quote makes absolutely no sense in the context of the story. Don't over-complicate matters by giving a reporter too much information. Use layperson's terms as much as possible and don't tax the reporter's brain.
7. Confirm What the Reporter Is Saying
My biggest fear is that a reporter will give me bad information. It has happened before - resulting in me looking like a dunce. If a reporter calls you and runs some information by you, make sure that you can confirm it. Obviously some stories will be about speculation. If that's the case, there's nothing wrong with offering an opinion. However, if a reporter calls and says, "The President called you a skunk," make sure that he really did.
8. Keep It to Yourself
I make a lot of off-the-record comments that are basically asides. More and more, these off-the-record comments are ending up in stories, though typically not as direct quotes. I've learned my lesson and I'm staying on-the-record now and keeping my off-the-record comments to myself. There's no reason for me, or you, to go off-the-record unless the information you're giving is absolutely necessary.
9. Steer the Conversation
The nice thing about being interviewed is that you are the party giving up the information. As such, you can steer the conversation and the story matter in a direction you want to go. Don't be afraid to do this, particularly if you think the reporter is taking a lame tack. Reporters are often looking for new directions for a story, especially if it's a piece their editors dumped on them and they didn't want to pursue in the first place.
10. End on a High Note
The last thing you say to a reporter is often the most important thing, so end the call by saying something smart and quotable - even if you're just repeating something you've said earlier. When reporters look at their notes or get ready to plug your comment into a story, the last note they've taken is going to be fresh in their mind.
These days, most contact between the media and sources takes place over the phone. Hopefully these simple rules can help you refine your phone skills, keep you from being misquoted and have you coming off sounding smart.
Ben Silverman is currently the Director of Development and a Contributing Editor for Indie Research (http://www.indieresearch.com), an independent investment research service. Previously, Ben was a business news columnist for The New York Post and the founder/publisher of DotcomScoop.com. He can be reached via email at bensilverman (at) gmail.com.
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