Tip Sheet: Media Training: Preparing For The Young And The Uninformed Reporters


In contrast to beat reporters who know the issues and players, the rookie reporter or the veteran new to a subject area can be much more difficult to prepare for. The reality of journalism these days is that a reporter covering business and finance this week may have just spent the last year on health and lifestyle, and the year before that on politics. It is becoming increasingly rare when a reporter stays on one beat long enough to be well versed, much less an expert on your subject matter. What do you do in this situation? Many might find it frustrating and, in fact, it may make for a longer, less focused interview. My advice: When you get in front of a reporter who is new to a topic or an industry, think "opportunity." More than just answering the questions, you have a chance to accomplish a number of critical objectives. First, you can really influence the reporter's understanding of the subject. Second, you may actually be able shape the story he or she is working on and you get more of your messages included. Third, you will be developing a possible contact for future stories. So, think of the interview as the beginning of a business relationship and an opportunity to educate. Know what she knows before you go: While it's harder to develop good "intel" than with a veteran, try to find out as much as possible before you sit down for the interview. What has he or she written on the subject in the past? Who else has she spoken to or will she speak to? Does she have an undergraduate or advanced degree in the subject? What news organization or publication has she written for or submitted stories for in the past? What pre-interview questions does she have for you? Based on the answers, you may want to e-mail him in advance with a few questions of your own. Tell her that you want to make sure you're going to be prepared with the information she is seeking and for the angle of this story. Backgrounding may help: When a new reporter comes on a beat, several clients invite the journalist in for a day of immersion in the company or organization. While the immersion day is technically on the record, the seminar about the organization and its issues serves to educate the reporter so that she will be more versed on issues when a story arises. Some reporters (and editors) prefer to keep a professional distance and learn by reading articles, books and through interviews. But if you can conduct a "deep dive" day, do so. Prepping the spokesperson, your patience may be tested: Spokespersons can be prickly when they meet a reporter who has little knowledge of a subject. We have seen behaviors that range from impatience to bad temper to condescension. None of these help in the long run. Most reporters are trying to get up to speed on an issue, and if it's a credible spokesperson, will want another chance to interview. Coach the spokesperson to treat the unseasoned reporter as an open book and use the interview as an opportunity to educate. Caveat: Be aware of the wolf in sheep's clothing. Some reporters will feign lack of knowledge about a subject, (like TV's Colombo) to see if you let down your guard, or they will act naive for awhile then turn on the tough questions. Correcting or clarifying: Rookie reporters occasionally do a little research and believe they understand a subject when they don't. If she mentions a study you're not familiar with, it's okay to ask for the study so you can get back with a comment. When she is off base in knowledge, resist the temptation to "correct" the reporter. This can damage the ego. Rather offer to "clarify" the information presented. Nowhere to start? Provide "bucket" help: Many times, an uneducated reporter may not even know where to start. They were told by an editor to go do a story on tax season, or ask an expert a number of questions. One way to exert control is to start off politely and suggest topics to discuss. For example, you might say, "Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. What would you like to discuss? Let me tell you what I'm prepared to talk about and we can go from there: Then list three or four subjects and go into depth. Start slow, set understandable pace, check back: Most experts speak too quickly and lose themselves in minutiae and industry or professional argot. This should never be the case in any communication with a reporter, but it is downright deadly with a reporter who is unfamiliar with your technical knowledge. If you must use acronyms and abbreviated industry terms, use them sparingly and explain each. Check in with the reporter regularly to make sure she understands you. Offer to revisit or cover a topic again. Ask her if she'd like to read any of her notes back for clarification. While reporters will rarely let you review the entire story, they may let you review your quotes or the paragraphs were your information is used. Use anecdotes and examples to support key points: Keep in mind that even if the reporter says she understands a subject that doesn't mean she and the readers couldn't still benefit from an example to illustrate it. In fact, providing that example or anecdote can mean the difference between your point being used just for background and being quoted in the story. Direct the reporter to other sources that are supportive of your story: Any good reporter will utilize several experts in order to craft a credible and well-rounded story. New reporters are anxious to learn about the subject, and if they haven't developed their own sources yet, may be more willing to accept your advice. Chances are these are all people the reporter will eventually find. Why not get credit for sending her in the right direction? This will increase the likelihood that the story will remain closer to what you intend and more of your messages will remain. Working with a young reporter, or one new to a beat offers unique opportunities to a spokesperson. Learn the specific rules, and you might get better coverage. Contact: Andy Gilman is president and CEO of CommCore Consulting Group. He can be reached at 202.659.4177, or agilman@commcoreconsulting.com.

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