Tanner Friedman
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What To Do If A Reporter Calls

By Matt Friedman

You return to your office from a business meeting to several voice-mail messages, just like any other day. But on this day, you have a message that is different. It's a reporter from one of the daily newspapers, wanting to talk to you about your business. What do you do?

Thoughts race through your mind: Am I the target of an investigation? What if I say the wrong thing? Maybe I should just ignore it and they'll go away. The answers are 1. probably not, 2. concern yourself with saying the right thing and 3. by all means, don't ignore the call.

In the movies, you see someone taking a call from a reporter, saying "no comment" into the phone and then going about their business. That scenario may be plausible in Hollywood, but in real life, "no comment" is not an option. Neither is not returning the call. That will irk the reporter and may result in a story where you are identified, by name, as someone who "did not return a call seeking comment." In fact, the latest surveys reveal the vast majority of the public feels that when a company will not comment as part of a news story, it means they have "something to hide." 

An opportunity to talk to a reporter can be an opportunity to get a message to the public about your business. But, even if the reporter is working on a story of which you want no part, you still must return the phone call. When you get a hold of the reporter, consider asking these questions:

What is the focus of your story? How might I be able to help you? What is your deadline?

Once you know the answers, you can begin to decide how to respond. If the story is within your realm of expertise, you may wish to participate. Engaging a public relations agency is one way to help make decisions about how to prepare for and deliver during and interview. If you decide to try it on your own, always take time to gather your thoughts, even if you have to call the reporter back a second time. Be careful not to speculate and always tell the truth - otherwise, you set yourself up for more problems.

Additionally, many business owners are concerned about "ambush" interviews - an investigative reporter from one of the local TV stations showing up at the office with lights on and cameras rolling. Following simple advice can help you avoid a dreaded confrontation with a TV news crew at your business.

Simply put, arrogance leads TV news people to ambush business owners. This type of interview is literally a last resort and is virtually always preceded by multiple phone calls that are ignored. If you return TV news calls and work with these journalists, rather than ignoring them, you can almost guarantee that a crew will not show up, unannounced, in your waiting room.

If someone other than you answers the phone in your office, please share this advice with your receptionist or assistant, as well as your staff. Teach them to respect deadlines and the impact the media can have on your business. That way, when a reporter writes that someone, whose point of view is absent from a story, "couldn't be reached for comment," they are not writing about you.

The 5 "dos" for media interviews

1. Do interviews that speak to your audience - a quote in an article may help your business, if you get your message across.

2. Do use the reporter as a conduit to speak to your audience - if you are clear and do not stray, you message will hit its mark.

3. Do prepare before each interview - no matter how comfortable you feel with the subject at hand.

4. Do consider professional media training - media interviews are conversations unlike any you have ever had before. Trust former or current journalists to provide the most expert training.

5. Do ask for help, ahead of time, if you are not comfortable - public relations professionals are skilled at working with the media.

This article was orginally published in the Detroiter magazine.

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