…And how to deal with them like a star
I admit. When I was a reporter at Czech Business Weekly and wanted my piece of news, I would do (almost) anything to get it. Never underestimate the perseverance of a journalist under time pressure, convinced that he’s representing the voice of masses that are entitled to know, or persuaded that you are hiding something. For a respectable media representative there is nothing better than the smell of a good story.
Good stories have dynamics: conflict, emotions and, from time to time, people who make a fool of themselves. There are legal and ethical limitations in journalism, of course. However, there are rules and there are rules. And some rules can sometimes be broken, particularly if a reporter is under a lot of stress, hasn’t received proper education or is simply looser in his understanding of professional ethics.
So, what can you do to make sure that, if you are to be part of a good media story, you’ll be on the winners’ side? Here are a few examples where lines blur between ethical and unethical media behavior.
- Topic chosen, topic forgotten.
It often happens that a journalist would invite herself in for an interview and, upon request, provide you with a list of topics for discussion. It also happens that, during the interview, you realize that you are questioned to talk about some other different and sensitive topics. It’s too late to step back: what do you do? If you feel OK about the new topics, go ahead. Yet, if the reporter is obviously using the space to get you to talk about something that wasn’t previously agreed, rebuff the attempt elegantly. For example, say that you didn’t prepare for this particular topic and thus can’t discuss details. If this doesn’t work because you are a CEO / politician who should know details, do your best to go back to your topics of choice elegantly (remember that priceless bridging technique?). Crisis scenarios are part of any decent interview preparation. If you know that you’ve got a lot of skeletons in your closet, do yourself a favor and book some media training before going head on to the hot seat.
- On the record / off the record
One of the favorite tactics of investigative reporters is to encourage people to speak under any circumstances. They might even promise you that what you say will go off the record. What they might mean is, in fact, that they might not publish your name, but they will run the information anyway. Make sure that you and the reporter have the same understanding of the term off the record. For your understanding: On the record = everything will be published, including your name, position and company. On background = the information will be published but your name won’t be connected to it. On deep background = the reporter will run the information without mentioning any sources. Off the record = the information won’t be published under any circumstances.
- Several questions in one.
By asking you several questions in one the journalist may achieve that you will only answer his inquires partially and the reader might gain the impression that you left out some part of the answer willingly. When multiple questions hit you, note down all the issues and answer them one by one. Ask the journalist if there was something else in the question that he wanted to know and you didn’t address before moving forward.
- Excessive aggressiveness, interruptions and jumping to conclusions
If you come from Romania, being interrupted constantly isn’t something you aren’t culturally used to: it is part of our Latino inheritance. However, having someone jumping constantly in the middle of what you are trying to say, interpreting it, not giving you a chance to explain or raising the voice at you is unpleasant – particularly if it takes place in front of a camera. The worst thing you can do under such circumstances is to mirror the aggressive behavior back. In fact, many journalists consciously provoke sources they know are short tempered in order to reveal that part of a source’s personality to the public. Do not let yourself dragged into an escalating aggressive dialogue. State your messages clearly, look the reporter in the eye and breathe. You’ll be out of it in a minute anyway. Yet, while you’re at it, communicate with dignity.
- Details, details.
If the topic of the interview deals with numerous facts and figures make sure you have a sheet of paper containing such facts at hand, particularly if you go for a live encounter. By asking you detailed questions or pulling out figures that may surprise you a well-prepared journalist can catch you off guard.
- Attention span smaller than a split second
Under the pressure of the Internet and the need to generate more content, journalists’ attention span has been constantly reducing. Basically, during the interview they focus on one thing only: your words that can be used in an article. By firing questions and switching topics rapidly a reporter might pull you in an unpleasant time race. Stick with your message and never lose sight of your goal: why you decided to meet the reporter in the first place.
- Opinion honey for loose flies
Sometimes a journalist can also state an opinion in order to test your reaction. Particularly if you’re on the record state only opinions that you can fully endorse afterwards.
Should you prepare yourself well, you can face any media encounter and turn it into your advantage. Understanding how journalists think and act is a fundamental skill for any leader. Media leadership comes with a price: sometimes you need to face your darkest demons in order to get some prime time coverage. Yet, it is well worth it. Media power isn’t for anyone: it is only for those who dare.
Author: Cristina Muntean