5 Puzzling Aspects of Media Relations

Through decades of work assisting with media-related crisis communications and media training spokespeople who are facing daunting tasks like live nationwide news interviews, we’ve come to realize that many people assume there are a standard set of rules which all reporters must follow. In truth, most of these “rules” — things like actually keeping ‘off the record’ comments, well, off the record — simply don’t exist!

Now, I’m not saying every reporter is out to trick and trap their way into a good story. There are absolutely still professionals out there doing their best to present accurate information and balanced coverage. However, it would be denying reality to say that a shortened news cycle and demand for 24/7 coverage hasn’t resulted in some frustrating realities. The list below doesn’t describe every interaction with reporters, but when you’re in crisis management mode we’d rather you assume they’re true than be caught unaware.

1. A reporter has the right to challenge anything you say or write, but will bristle when you try to do the same to them. Not only are they trying to extract the most information possible, but challenging statements provides great opportunity to draw out a “GOTCHA” moment when something doesn’t quite line up. Expect your statements to be challenged, and come prepared with facts, figures, and outside opinions to back yourself up. Falling into the trap of speculation or dishonesty is tempting, but steer clear if you want to survive the interview intact. On the flip side, while there are some cases where it makes sense to challenge a reporter mid-interview it’s difficult to do in a way that can’t be used to make you look combative and obstinate by a bristly reporter with creative editors.

2. A reporter can put words in a naïve source’s mouth via leading questions and then swear by the authenticity of those quotes. For example, a reporter asking, “The company is entirely at fault here, isn’t it?”, is fishing for you to say yes (or even just nod reflexively while the question rolls out!) so their story can include the line, “Mr. Smith agreed that that the company was fully responsible for the incident.” When you’re dealing with the media it’s important to respectfully correct leading or misinformed statements right up front, before launching into other messaging.

3. The media will report every charge filed in a criminal or civil case despite the fact that a civil case, in particular, can make all sorts of wild, unproven claims with coverage focusing far more on the allegations than on responses by a defendant. Reporters know that sex, violence, and money sells. Plaintiff’s attorneys are aware of this fact too, and it’s common to see cases filed with language that is specifically included to sensationalize situations enough to attract media outlets looking for new stories. If you find your brand the subject of a court filing, you’d be smart to brainstorm what tough questions a reporter might be led to ask.

4. The media usually carries a bigger stick than you through its ability to selectively report facts and characterize responses, and via the public perception that “if I saw it in/on the news, it must be true.” The news still has the undeniable power to shape public perception. If a story’s coming out regardless of whether you participate or not (and when it comes to crisis management situations that’s typically the case) then most times you’re best off playing the game and achieving at least some level of balance in coverage. It’s important to note that the ability to effectively self-publish and distribute information online is changing this to some degree, and if you truly believe there won’t even be an attempt at balanced reporting then that’s a route to consider.

5. “Off the record” often isn’t and “no comment” reads as “I’ve done something wrong and don’t want to talk about it.” There is absolutely nothing legally obligating reporters to maintain the secrecy of “off the record”, “not for attribution”, or “on background” conversations. Zip, zilch, nada. Many reporters will respect these terms to some degree, but in the end what it boils down to is that you should say anything to or within earshot of a reporter that you don’t want published with your name attached. As far as “no comment” goes…just don’t do it. There are going to be plenty of questions you avoid answering when engaged in crisis communications efforts, but it’s better to use those questions as opportunities to bridge into other key messages rather than uttering the phrase that summons up images of old-school PR disasters featuring harried executives running to their cars holding suit jackets up for protection.

Dealing with the media can be a daunting task when you’re facing with a tough situation, but it’s important to remember that there are few better ways to get the key messages that will influence your reputation and financial bottom line in front of important audiences than to have them repeated by the press. Knowing what your goals are going into any interview and having a plan to cope with these puzzling, sometimes frustrating aspects before you step in front of a reporter will help to maximize your changes of success with any given media relations effort.

Practice makes perfect! If you want to learn more about how Bernstein Crisis Management can help your spokespeople prepare to effectively handle crisis communications and media relations, contact us today! 

Erik Bernstein
erik@bernsteincrisismanagement.com