Be Prepared for The Unexpected

Guest blog: Greg Ward, media trainer to our clients

As a media trainer, I am frequently surprised by the way people in business respond - or fail to respond - to unexpected media requests.

Reporters are always looking for new stories about success. Your new product, service or solution could be just what they want. 

Sadly, too many bosses make the mistake of hiding rather than engaging.  They choose to avoid every reporter call. As a result, they often miss out on valuable exposure and free positive publicity. 

But what happens when reporters call with negative questions? How should you respond when the story is controversial? 

The best advice for any unexpected media call is to avoid comment and stall for one hour.  Buying yourself one hour will give you time to investigate and respond appropriately.

Encourage the reporter to send their story background and questions by email.  You then have the option of continuing email contact or phoning them back for an interview.

Whatever you do, get off the phone as quickly as you can. The more you talk, the more you will be quoted.  A conversation will quickly turn into an interview.

Another common response is to rush into an interview without any preparation. I had a call recently from a nervous new client seeking urgent media training.  They had been contacted by a weekend current affairs show.  And they had agreed to appear live in a TV studio interview without any detail on the likely questions.

Let’s be clear about this. Reporters are unlikely to provide a complete list of questions. But they should provide at least a general overview. Always ask.  Never wing it. Knowing the questions will allow you to provide more informed answers.

If a reporter or presenter refuses to share their topic or questions, they are planning an ambush. You should decline the interview. This was my advice to the new client mentioned above.  As a result, there was no media training, because there was no interview. Fortunately, a studio ambush is a rare event.  But you need to recognise it before it happens.

If you’ve ever been unsettled by a call from a reporter with negative questions, I have some good news.  Media engagement is not like jury service.  Just because they call does not mean you have to attend.  They are reporters, not detectives or High Court judges.

If you do decide to engage, there are several questions you should ask the journalist before fronting for a negative or hostile topic.  These include:

  • What prompted your interest in this story?
  • What questions do you have for us?
  • Will you be interviewing any other parties?
  • Do you have any specific concerns about our business?

Explaining your own bad news is one of the best ways to recover from bad news.  And you don’t need to engage directly with the reporter.  My advice is to talk when the news is good but write when the news is bad.

The obvious choices for written responses include media statements, company web sites, social media or even a brief email to the reporter.

Media engagement usually has a good outcome, even when your news is bad.  If you know the questions, but still choose to hide from the media, other commentators will soon fill the vacuum. Your customers; critics, and rivals will all have something to say – usually on social media.

The one thing you should always avoid are the two words “No comment”.

In isolation, “No comment” sounds as though you have something to hide.  A far better option is to give a reason, e.g. “We have no comment because we need more time to consider this issue.” Or “I have no comment because I am not authorised to discuss this issue.”

Finally, there is one question always asked during media training.  Everyone has the same fear: what to say if you don’t know the answer.  Relax. Reporters encounter this uncertainty every day. It is okay not to have every answer.

Here are a few suitable responses:

  • “I’m not sure, let me get back to you.”
  • “That’s a question you should refer to...”
  • “I can’t answer that, but what I can tell you is this...”
  • “The question we should be asking is this...”

Everyone remembers the aggressive or hostile interviews we see in movies or on TV.  But most media encounters are quite routine information-gathering exercises. 

Reporters don’t usually set out to write bad things about good people. But good people do have a habit of giving bad interviews. That’s why you get edited. Reporters know audiences won’t tolerate endless buzzwords and corporate jargon.

So, keep it brief.  Plan your talking points.  Know the questions.  Share stories and examples.

And always apologise when things go wrong.

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