One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Recognizing and Handling Different Reporter Styles

Every so often, I stumble across an article attempting to psychoanalyze reporter’s styles. Some writers talk about machine gunners—reporters who fire one question after another after another. Others believe reporters follow specific patterns. Just last week, a writer labeled some media inquisitions as “sneak attacks.”

Let me clear up a few things. As a reporter for 20 years, I’m here to tell you reporters don’t sit around planning how to get you. They don’t approach stories by consciously saying, “What type of questioning pattern should I use on this one?” In fact, if my cronies and I were discussing this, we’d have a few good laughs.

True, each reporter has his or her individual style just as teachers teach differently in their classrooms. Through the years, you do learn what works and what doesn’t work, but most often a reporter’s style depends on the personality of the interviewee, the chemistry between the reporter and the subject and the sensitivity of the situation at hand.

For example, I recall covering a story about a baby who had been abducted from the hospital nursery. For obvious reasons, the family did not want to talk to the throngs of reporters shouting questions and hovering outside their home. I was one of those reporters and felt very uncomfortable being sent to hound the family during a time of such duress so I removed myself from the crowd and remained off to the side. I didn’t do it to appear more sensitive or to angle a way into an interview, yet that’s exactly what happened. Family members noticed and invited me into their home to talk. I ended up with an exclusive.

Instead of wasting energy trying to identify what you perceive as an upcoming sneak attack or a pre-planned question-asking pattern, think of reporters as people who simply want to know what you would want to know if you were a reader, listener or viewer. When you learn to do that, you will learn to prepare in advance. Usually, those so-called sneak attack questions are really follow-up questions to something the spokesperson said. My best stories always came from the unexpected responses.

Regardless of who a reporter works for, they are all after the same thing: a story. If you are not providing the information needed to tell that story, they will look for ways to pull it out of you including:

Playing Dumb
Acting like a blank slate often prompts an interviewee to deliver more information than the reporter really needs. Depending on what the interviewee says, the subject of the story can drastically change. That’s why it’s critical to know what you want to say before the interview. Instead of waiting for questions to trigger your message, look for opportunities to insert your messages into the conversation.

I’m Your Friend
You are more likely to open up to a friend as opposed to a stranger. If you feel the reporter genuinely cares about you and has your best interest at heart, you may inadvertently reveal too much. Reporters can be nice people, but they are not your friends.

Plead and Beg
This is truly an act of desperation, but sometimes if a reporter says, “Please, please tell me, my editor will have my head if I don’t come back with this information and I promise not to quote you…”—you might give in. Chances are, the reporter won’t quote you, but the information is now out there. If you don’t want something made public, then zip it.

Another Source Said
If a reporter tells you another source said something that you believe is unfair or not true, you may feel the need to correct that information. Perhaps the so-called source never said a thing, but now you are being quoted. So, be careful not to repeat negatives or use the reporter’s words because they can become your own.

I Want Your Opinion
If you are representing your company or agency, then you should be speaking in “we” phrases, as opposed to “I,” therefore your personal opinion is irrelevant.

This is very dangerous, but it’s a great tactic for drawing out information. For example, the reporter says: “Either you stole the money or you didn’t.” Do not get lured into a yes or no answer. Simply state what you want to say or respond with phrases such as: “The situation is not black and white…”—and then deliver your message.

Some reporters simply have an agenda. It doesn’t matter what you say because they aren’t listening. They want to make you angry because anger equals emotion and emotion sells stories. Keep calm and repeat your message.

Subject Changer
The reporter who changes subjects is trying to throw you off track. Perhaps you agreed to the interview because you want to talk about your new product. The reporter really isn’t interested in your product, but it was the only way he could spend some time with you. If you do not want to talk about what he wants to discuss, simply remind him this is not the subject at hand and perhaps you can discuss the other matter at another time.

Going Fishing
This reporter doesn’t have an agenda. She’ll take whatever she can get. She knows little about your company and will throw a bucket of questions up into the air to see which one sticks. It’s up to you to manage the message. If the reporter asks three or four questions at once, pick the one you want to answer and stop.

Holding You Accountable
This reporter will tell you what they know even if it’s exaggerated. For example, I know A and B and C. Is this true? I know X and Y and Z. Can you explain that? Again, don’t repeat the reporter’s accusations or assumptions and don’t assume they know what they say they know. Stick to your message and what is confirmed.

Deals in Rumors
Many stories are initially based on rumors. Someone calls a newsroom because their neighbor told them something. The reporter is assigned to check it out and after a handful of interviews, comes up with a story. Don’t deal in rumors. Stick to the facts. No matter how many ways the reporter repeats the question, if it’s not fact, don’t speculate.

The inexperienced reporter is your biggest problem because they have no perspective. They are still learning and don’t always ask questions that will generate good information. It is your job to feed them the information you want delivered so you have greater control. Be careful not to say too much or the green reporter might choose the wrong message to report. Remember, when speaking to reporters, less is more.

Finally, every interview situation is very different. If you are terribly upset about a situation, a journalist may try to get personal. While you might be sorry later, they will have a story loaded with real feelings, not pre-planned messages devoid of emotion. A reporter’s job is to make the public see what they saw, hear what they heard, feel what they felt and smell what they smelled. They can’t do that if they don’t ask the right questions to generate an emotional response.

This article was excerpted from PR News' upcoming Crisis Management Guidebook, Volume 3. It was written by Karen Friedman, an international communications coach and president of Karen Friedman Enterprises. To find out how to order this guidebook, check for regular updates.