Playing the Field: Intercepting Tough Media with Air-Tight Strategies


How about this for irony: There are innumerable best-practices lists, training sessions and seminars about how to get the media to tell your story your way, yet university- trained journalists are schooled in the complete opposite - that is, how to translate and interpret fluff, "PR speak," bridges away from tough questions and ambiguities to get to the crux of the matter. With these competing schools of thought vying for a victory, where does this leave media relations? The easy answer would be "defeated." But the thoughtful answer is far more optimistic. After all, PR strategists have evolved their offerings to include media training, and many are doing so in a way that behooves both the communications exec and the journalist. As it turns out, the starting point is mutual respect. The next step, for both parties, is asking the right questions. A Suspicious Mission "A reporter needs three things for a story: a theme, facts and a quote," says Andy Gilman, president of CommCore Consulting Group. "The quote is the only thing they need from you." This comment points to a concern cited by many PR professionals: They have a long conversation with a reporter, and the next day, their comments are boiled down to a single quote - and it was taken out of context, to boot. True, this can be the fault of a lazy or biased journalist who had a hole to fill, or a soapbox to stand on; all they needed was your quote for a little outside perspective. But this can also be a miscommunication of the PR professional, who didn't frame his/her comments in the most relevant and effective way possible. After all, just like you, the reporter is trying to reach an audience. "Your audience drives the messages that you are going to deliver, as well as the language you use," says Carol Preston, a media trainer with CommCore. "You're number-one responsibility is to understand who your audience is. Then develop a core set of messages." Gilman follows up on this point, saying, "A reporter is the filter between you and your target audience." With that in mind, here are things a PR person can do to make sure the desired particles make it through that filter: *Think like the reporter: You've heard it time and time again, and here are specific avenues for doing so. Know what reporters like, which, in most cases, includes a good headline, a villain and a victim; The answers to six questions: who, what, where, when, why and how; and, A sound bite, but given in context (this context will help prevent them from taking your sound bite out of content). According to Gilman, the three components of a good sound bite are a headline, facts/third-party endorsement and an analogy. *Don't over-validate: Short and sweet is always the safest bet, as pontificating can make you look uninformed or unprepared. Make a statement and visualize the punctuation at the end of it to make yourself stop talking. *Be realistic: Don't ever send a reporter an e-mail saying "We would greatly appreciate it if you could publish the attached press releases." (Yes, this is a direct quote from a real e-mail.) "If you want it perfect, it's call advertising," Gilman says. *Make sure you answer these unspoken questions that are top of mind for a journalist: "What's in it for the reporter's audience? Why should they care about what you're saying? How is it relevant to their lives?" says Betsy Goldberg, a communications coach with Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. "To demonstrate that relevance clearly, outline the problem people face, the solution you provide and the benefit they'll receive." *Speak in layman's terms: This is not to say that that commentary should be "dumbed down" for journalists; rather, it should be geared towards the target audience. If that audience is a specialized one, then speak their language. "We're all used to speaking in the jargon of our industries. But if you use that jargon in an interview you may confuse journalists and their audiences," Goldberg says. "You could also ruin the power of a simply worded sound bite. Using everyday words actually demonstrates that you know your topic so well you can explain it even on a basic level." Finally, says Showtime VP of corpcomms Richard Licata, don't take yourselves and the hard work you do for granted. "The role of [PR] in any discipline has never been recognized to the level it should be," he says. "Things don't appear in print or on TV courtesy of the Publicity Fairy." PRN CONTACTS: Andy Gilman, agilman@commcoreconsulting.com; Richard Licata, richard.licata@showtime.net; Betsy Goldberg, betsyg@waggeneredstrom.com Going From Interviewee To Interviewer One sure-fire way to turn the tables and take control of an interview is to ask the journalist questions. "It's really about asking them questions and then calibrating your remarks," says Andy Gilman, president of CommCore Consulting Group. This is applicable in multiple scenarios: if you are calling them to pitch a story, or if they are calling you for comment. Here are key ones to remember: Who else have you talked to? This will give you a perspective on the scope of the article, as well as how prevalent your company/client will be. When is your deadline? Asking this when you call to pitch a story shows respect for the journalist's time; asking it when they call you for comment gives you insight into how prepared they probably are, and if they are calling you as a last resort. Do you want the long answer or the short answer? This will give you an opportunity to get in some background information, and to allude to the fact that this is a complex issue that requires an explanation, both in the interview and in the published story. Another strategy for getting your comments into a story (and doing so exactly how you meant them) is by dropping verbal flags, including: The bottomline is ... The key takeaways are ... Five points to remember include ... Something I have not seen published before is ... Raising A Red Flag Just as you are trained to sidestep a touchy issue, journalists are trained to put you on the spot and get honest answers to tough questions. There are multiple ways of doing this, some of which are above board, and others of which are sneaky. Here are a few types of questions to be wary of, coupled with strategies for answering them: "What if" questions: These questions often come up when a journalist has already written the majority of the story and are coming to you to fill a hole. If you aren't playing along (and you shouldn't be), they will lead you down a dark road by asking you to comment on hypothetical scenarios. Good responses to these lead-ins include: "I'm not in a position to speculate;" "I'm not capable of predicting the future, but I can comment on the here-and-now," or "that question isn't relevant to this conversation." The same question five different ways: An alternative approach to getting the answer they are looking for is to ask the same question multiple times with slightly different angles. Novice communications professionals might find this disarming and accidentally "slip" with an answer that isn't representative of the message they are trying to convey. In these situations, throw it right back at the reporter by asking, "Why do you keep asking me that?"

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