Public Relations: A Veteran’s Tips For Surviving the Media: Crisis communications
If you want the bottom line on how to save your skin with the press, talk to someone who has been in the trenches. Richard “Rick” Barentine – the former CEO of the International Home Furnishing Marketing Association – jousted successfully with media for 22 years. This endlessly interviewed executive was exceptionally well qualified to advise how to make messages count and avoid embarrassment. His departure left a model of media management as well as leadership.
After his retirement, Rick told me what he had learned from countless press contacts. Here were Rick’s recommendations for surviving the media – in quotes – with my elaboration.
- “Know what the questions will be about.” This gives you time to consider what you will say and whether you should be saying anything at all. Never wing it when your reputation is on the line. Be prepared.
- “Know the first question before the camera is turned on.” You can make an immediately cogent comment. It also reduces the likelihood of being blindsided by a surprise question (although there is no complete defense against a reporter gunning for you).
- “Assume everything you say is on the record from the minute the reporter walks in the door or calls on the telephone.” Reporters consider you quotable at all times. You should too. Do not be fooled into thinking your comments don’t count when a reporter is not taking notes or a camera is not taping.
- “Never chit-chat casually about anything of substance. Never be casual about an interview. Always be ‘on the job.’” Because offhand remarks are usually more lively, energetic, pointed, and colorful, they make wonderful grist for a reporter’s mill. Talk extemporaneously at your peril.
- “Only go off-the-record with reporters you know well and be very clear about when you are on and off.” Executives occasionally – and recklessly – offer off-the-record information to reporters they barely know. Avoid it. If you feel you must provide facts on background, do it with someone you trust and be sure the journalist specifically acknowledges your terms. Your statements are not “off-the-record” until the reporter agrees that they are.
- “Be conscious of your surroundings and background when giving a TV interview to make sure they are relevant to the story or frame you in a flattering way. Always wear a coat. Don’t be interviewed about an employee death while standing at a tennis court.”
- “Body language, eye level, eye movement, and posture are always important on camera.” Furthermore, understanding – and believing – your message helps ensure persuasive body language.
- “You should know technically what happens to your message whether at a TV or radio station or at a newspaper.” If you are constantly in the public eye, then you should know how the media operate.
- “Say your message in a few seconds and then stop. The pause will be the edit point. Don’t ramble on. Silence is safety.” This is basic message focus. The more you talk, the more you obscure your message, and the more likely you are to say something you will regret.
- “Be friendly with the photographers – they can make you look good.” This applies to both print and television.
- “Know that after you give one interview to one reporter, a host of others may follow, so be prepared.”
- “Never call a news conference unless you’ve got real news.” If you cry wolf with reporters, they may not pay attention when you really need them.
- “Never think that a reporter for a small news organization is too small. Their stories can get picked up and get wide distribution.” Even the most innocuous interview with a minor league newsperson can spread to major media and can get you in trouble.
- “Always be helpful. Suggest questions, and help them find video.” While this is usually good advice, be wary of giving reporters a stick with which to beat you during controversial situations.
- “Be aware of your audience. For example, don’t say the (furniture) market is great this year when you know that layoffs are planned in a few weeks. Employees will hold you accountable for that deception.”
- “Furniture executives don’t always make their executives available enough to reporters in good times to create good will in the community and build contacts that could help in bad times.”Positive stories are an investment in the bank of public good will.
- “Know the news anchors and the station managers. They could help you with an unfair story. Reporters who know you are more likely to trust you and less likely to skewer you unfairly. It’s good to have constant contact with the press.” Rapport with the media is good – but not absolute – insurance against unfair news coverage.
- “When the newspaper calls for an interview, ask them to bring their tape recorder so that your quotes will be more accurate”. This may be preferable to recording it yourself which communicates mistrust on your part. In critical cases, you may want to tape record your interview anyway.
- “Know what the wire service is, and cultivate contact with its reporters.” Associated Press stories run statewide so communicate well with AP.
- “Be aware that reporters will come around sometimes just to ‘pick the lint off you’ so be sure what you want to communicate. Help lead them to a story they can use.”
A few days after the interview, Rick Barentine asked me to add three other principles of his that reporters valued: don’t play favorites, be fair, and always be willing to answer the tough questions. Then came the clincher. He said, “These standards for communicating with the media are valuable for communicating with everyone.”
Thank you, Rick!