Crisis Management: Reporters – How to Deal With A Troublesome Journalist: Crisis Response
“Don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” is the timeless warning about arguing with newspaper reporters. A U.S. Government official reinforced that notion after she took responsibility for a multi-billion dollar budget affecting thousands. This friend, now retired, said I could tell her story. Out of respect for her staff, I will keep her anonymous.
Having just taken her position she learned of a confrontational phone conversation between a staffmember and a trade press reporter. No one had told her. She was both in charge and in the dark about a dispute that could show up in print. After years of Washington experience and good associations with the press this incident concerned her.
So, she gathered the facts and gently, but firmly, laid down the law to her new charges. First, fighting with reporters is not smart and not acceptable. Second, she said she always wanted to know what was happening with the press. “I want to be in the loop on every contact that we have with reporters,” she said.
I particularly like what she did next.
She assembled her senior staff and called the reporter involved in the confrontation. She identified herself and said, “I am aware that one of my colleagues had an unpleasant conversation with you. I want you to know that is not the way we will be operating around here in the future. On behalf of my agency, I want to apologize to you for the way you were handled. I have in the past had very good relationships with your (newspaper) and want to continue those relations in my new assignment. Is there anything we can do to help you?”
The reporter seemed dumbfounded. The journalist said she had never received such a call. The reporter then asked if she could profile the senior official. My friend demurred, said she was still getting her feet on the ground, but would be happy to comply in a few weeks. Since the peace offering, the reporter has written several balanced articles about the agency.
The official also extended a peace offering to her own staff. She apologized for not being clear about her news media policies. She told them she was sorry, and, by email, that she wanted to make it clear how the agency will operate in the future.
These are her guidelines for talking to reporters. Ask the reporter 1) who he/she represents, 2) what is the story, 3) what is the deadline, 4) promise to call back, 5) contact public affairs internally and determine how best to handle the situation.
I asked my friend to elaborate on her philosophy for dealing with reporters. She said, “Be quick, be honest and be right when you talk to them. Don’t tell them something wrong. Being quick is number one in my book. If you are quick, they will believe you do not have anything to hide, and assume you are honest. If you ask the deadline they know you care about helping them. They are trying to do a job, to get a story, and you want to help them to tell (it). They’ll presume you are doing the right thing.”
I asked, “But what if a reporter unfairly maligns you.”
She said, “If they are wrong and you quickly get back to them then you can turn them around (into) the correct direction. If the reporting error is serious enough, then we should have a face to face meeting between the reporter and our public affairs staff, someone accustomed to dealing with that particular reporter. We will focus on getting the story right. You have to get down to the nitty gritty. If you do this you won’t end up in an adversarial relationship with the press.”
A footnote. Occasionally a reporter is unreasonable, almost malicious and defies peacemaking efforts. Go to senior news management next. If that fails, all self-protection tactics are on the table. Be careful though. Most “incorrigible” reporter cases are rare and are actually failures to communicate as suggested earlier.