Posted Tuesday, February 15, 2005
A reporter's job is to get the most accurate and interesting story he or she can. Whether journalists make you look good or bad in the process is inconsequential to them – their loyalty is to their story, and their goal is to elicit the most dramatic quotes possible from you.
This is not to suggest that you should view every encounter with reporters as adversarial. In fact, most interviews are quite straightforward. But a good journalist will try to steer you “off message." He or she will use well-established tricks of the trade to get you to say things you didn’t intend to say, and some of those things might prove embarrassing when you see them in the newspaper the next day.
By knowing some of the tricks of the reporting trade, you can maintain control of the interview and get the quotes you want. Below are three ways to avoid falling into a reporter's trap:
1) Never Repeat a Bad Question in Your Answer -- It usually starts innocuously enough. A journalist will tell you that because his or her questions will not be included in the story, you should answer the questions in complete sentences.
For example, if a reporter asks, 'Are you pleased with the number of donations your organization received this year?" he or she would ask you to answer by saying, "Our organization is pleased with the number of donations we've received this year." It makes perfect sense, and is a legitimate way of conducting an interview.
But occasionally, a reporter will ask a negative question without warning. You have to break the rules here, and answer the question as a positive.
For example, if a reporter asks you, “Is it true that your organization has committed fraud?" you probably don’t want your quote the next day to say, “It isn’t true that our organization committed fraud." Such a quote links your organization to the word “fraud," an association you’d probably rather not make.
Assuming, of course, that your business did not commit fraud, you should answer that question in a positive manner, such as, “In our 35 years of business, we have always taken great pains to ensure that our business operates within the word and spirit of the law. We have operated ethically in this case, as we strive to in all of our dealings."
2) Shhhhh! -- During most interviews, reporters will ask a steady stream of questions and you will answer them. No surprises there. But remember the goal of the journalist – he or she wants to steer you off message in order to elicit a more interesting response.
Sometimes, after you finish answering the reporter’s question, the reporter will just sit there, as if he or she wants you to continue speaking. The silence usually flusters the interviewee, who tries to please his or her interviewer by speaking again – and usually strays far off message in the process. Don’t fall into this trap! If you find yourself in a “reportorial stare down," simply ask whether the reporter has another question and move on.
3) Don’t Assume the Reporter Knows What He Says He Knows -- For this one, I’ll turn it over to Eric Nalder, an investigative reporter for the respected San Jose Mercury News. In his article, “The Art of the Interview," Nalder writes, “Play like you know. Ask the official why he fired the whistle-blower rather than asking whether he did the deed. The question presumes you already know even if you don’t have it confirmed. They’ll start explaining rather than denying."
In other words, by falling into this trap, you may be the person who confirms a negative story about your own organization. If the reporter has made a false assumption, speak up. If not, don’t help the journalist confirm it unless you’ve made a conscious choice to do so.
About the Author
Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations (http://www.PhillipsMediaRelations.com). He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and also headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.