© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"The most powerful force in the universe is gossip."
Humorist Dave Barry
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Recognizing Reporter Styles
by Karen Friedman
Editor's Note: Here's another insightful journey through the mind of a veteran reporter.
As a reporter for twenty years, I'm here to tell you reporters don't sit around planning how to get you. They don't approach stories by consciously saying "hmmm, what type of questioning pattern should I use on this one?" In fact, if my cronies and I were discussing this as we sat around staking out the scene of a story, we'd have a few good laughs.
Editor's Comment: This is where Karen and I respectfully disagree; I have known reporters, both while I was a journalist and since then in my PR career, who "sat around planning" to "get" someone. Sadly, they poison the well for the rest.
True, each reporter has his or her individual style just as teachers teach differently in their classrooms. Through the years, you do learn what works and what doesn't work, but most often a reporter's style depends on the personality of the interviewee, the chemistry between the reporter and the subject and the sensitivity of the situation at hand.
For example, several years ago, I covered a story about a baby who had been abducted from the hospital nursery. For obvious reasons, the family did not want to talk to the throngs of reporters shouting questions and hovering outside their home. I was one of those reporters and felt very uncomfortable being sent to hound the family during a time of such duress, so I removed myself from the crowd and remained off to the side. I didn't do it to appear more sensitive or to angle a way into an interview, yet that's exactly what happened. Family members noticed and invited me into their home to talk. I ended up with an exclusive.
Instead of wasting energy trying to identify what you perceive as an upcoming attack or a pre-planned question asking pattern, think of reporters as people who simply want to know what you would want to know if you were a reader, listener or viewer. When you learn to do that, you will learn to prepare in advance. Often, what you might consider the sneakiest questions are really follow-up questions to something the spokesperson said. My best stories always came from the unexpected responses.
Regardless of who a reporter works for, they are all after the same thing: a story. If you are not providing the information needed to tell that story, they will look for ways to pull it out of you including:
Acting like a blank slate often prompts an interviewee to deliver more information than the reporter really needs. Depending on what the interviewee says, the subject of the story can drastically change.
I'M YOUR FRIEND
You are more likely to open up to a friend as opposed to a stranger. If you feel the reporter genuinely cares about you and has your best interests at heart, you may inadvertently reveal too much.
PLEAD AND BEG
This is truly an act of desperation, but sometimes if a reporter says "please, please tell me, my editor will have my head if I don't come back with this information and I promise not to quote you," you might give in. Chances are, the reporter won't quote you, but the information is now out there.
ANOTHER SOURCE SAID
If a reporter tells you another source said something that you believe is unfair or not true, you may feel the need to correct that information. Perhaps the so-called source never said a thing, but now you are being quoted.
I WANT YOUR OPINION
If you are representing your company or agency, then you should be speaking as a we, therefore your personal opinion is irrelevant.
This is very dangerous, but it's a great tactic for drawing information. For example, the reporter says: "Either you stole the money or you didn't." Do not repeat the reporter's words. Simply state what you want to say.
Some reporters simply have an agenda. It doesn't matter what you say because they aren't listening. They want to make you angry because anger equals emotion and emotion sells stories. It's up to you.
The reporter who changes subjects is trying to throw you off track. Perhaps you agreed to the interview because you want to talk about your new product. The reporter really isn't interested in your product, but it was the only way he could spend some time with you.
This reporter doesn't have an agenda. She'll take whatever she can get. She knows little about your company and will throw a bucket of questions up into the air to see which one sticks. It's up to you to manage the message.
HOLDING YOU ACCOUNTABLE
This reporter will tell you what they know even if it's exaggerated. For example, I know A and B and C. Is this true? I know X and Y and Z. Can you explain that? Again, don't repeat the reporter's accusations or assumptions. Stick to your message and what you know.
DEALS IN RUMORS
Many stories are initially based on rumors. Someone calls a newsroom because their neighbor told them something. The reporter is assigned to check it out and after a handful of interviews, comes up with a story. Don't deal in rumors. Stick to the facts. No matter how many ways the reporter repeats the question; if it's not fact, don't speculate.
The inexperienced reporter is your biggest problem because they have no perspective. They are still learning and don't always ask questions that will generate good information. It is your job to feed them the information you want delivered so you have greater control. Be careful not to say too much or the green reporter might choose the wrong message to report.
Finally, every interview situation is very different. If you are terribly upset about a situation, I may ask you questions aimed at making you get personal. While you might be sorry later, I've filed a great report because it's loaded with real statements not pre-planned messages devoid of emotion. As a reporter, my job is to make the public see what I saw, hear what I heard, feel what I felt and smell what I smelled. I can't do that if I don't ask the right questions.
Editor's Comment: Sometimes reporters go too far, and I'd like to refer you to two sources of information that will be helpful in such cases. First, the Society of Professional Journalists has a wonderful code of ethics with which all journalists should comply. If they don't, you have a basis for further discussion with their editor. The code is at: http://www.spj.org/ethics_code.asp. Next, you might want to read an article I wrote, "When the Media Goes too Far," located at: http://www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/docs/azatty7.html.
Karen Friedman brings 20 years of on-air television experience to media and communications training and consulting. Her Philadelphia area company, Karen Friedman Enterprises, prepares people to take advantage of media interviews, presentations and public appearances. She can be reached at: 610.292.9780 or her website at www.karenfriedman.com.
Disgruntled Franchisee Lashes Out
by Jonathan Bernstein
Sometimes crises are "big deals." Sometimes they're situations that can crop up in any industry, but fit the Webster's Collegiate dictionary definition of crisis as "an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs whose outcome will make a decisive difference for better or worse." If mishandled, the situation below, modified to preserve confidentiality, COULD have become a "big deal."
A franchiser suddenly started getting calls from concerned franchisees. They had been contacted by a relatively new franchisee who had pointed out a number of things he felt were illegal or unethical about the franchiser's business practices. He had also alleged that some of the franchiser's board of directors had been involved in multiple past lawsuits -- the implication being that they were previously accused of wrongdoing and shouldn't be trusted.
Initial Management Reaction
Management, appropriately, told the concerned callers that they could understand how such information might upset them and asked for a little time to check out what was being said, and by whom, before responding. They wisely did not immediately deny allegations, knowing that they were hearing second-hand information, and that there was some limited truth regarding the issue of past lawsuits.
Response, from that point on, proceeded on two concurrent fronts: legal and PR. The franchiser's in-house counsel contacted the franchisee who had made the allegations and found that the franchisee was worried that he'd committed to his franchise too fast and, actually, was looking for a way out. His initial inquiries to the franchiser on this subject had been rebuffed simply because he was asking to get out entirely at the franchiser's expense. He had then twisted the facts about business practices and thrown in some facts -- that board members HAD been involved in past lawsuits. What he didn't say was that those lawsuits had not involved the board members while they were with the current franchiser and all had been minor civil cases resulting, at worst, in very low-cost settlements. In other words, "routine business experiences."
However, damage had been done. The disgruntled franchisee had already contacted approximately one dozen of his peers and the company knew the rumor mill would spread the word to many others.
The in-house counsel and PR/crisis management consultant put their heads together and, ultimately, what resulted was:
The disgruntled franchisee was asked to write a letter to all whom he had contacted, one actually drafted by legal and PR counsel, apologizing for causing alarm and correcting the facts. In return, the company offered a more-than-generous method by which the franchisee could get out of his deal. This avoided a lawsuit against the franchisee that would have been negative PR for the company, even if they "won" in court.
His letter was accompanied by one from the company, offering to answer any questions the recipients might have and communicating, in essence, that they were forgiving of the disgruntled franchisee's trespasses.
The same letter was kept on standby for use with any other franchisees who heard via the rumor-mill.
A contingency statement was written for use with trade and franchise media if they got wind of the rumors.
The situation calmed and has not returned to haunt the franchiser.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: You wrote an article a while back about the biggest mistakes in crisis communications. Have you added any new ones to that list?
CM: As a matter of fact, yes. The original article is at: www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/docs/azatty8.html. Next time I re-write it, I'm going to add a variation of one item from that article, "doing the same things over and over again expecting different results." The variation will be "once you get things calmed down again, forget how you got in trouble in the first place and go back to your crisis-provoking behaviors." I've seen it happen all too often -- we've put out a fire or two, the company gets complacent, and some folks return to their previous styles of communicating (or not communicating), resulting in yet another crisis. If you look at human behavior in general, even how we act in our own private lives, you'll see parallels. Most of us only effect permanent change at the receiving end of a lot of pain.
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