How To Protect Your Client From Headline-Seeking Reporters

Hand holding a microphone conducting a business interview or press conference

During my career as a journalist, and a much longer one in public relations, I long ago came to the conclusion that there are three types of journalists:

  • Square Shooters: These are journalists with no axe to grind. They simply want to cover a story and report facts as accurately as they can.
  • Quoters: These are journalists who primarily sprinkle their articles with quotes without caring if the quotes are outlandish and not based on known facts. These types of journalists believe that they should not censor people’s thoughts and it’s not their job to determine the accuracy of facts in a quote.
  • Headline-Seekers: These journalists are always looking for an angle that will result in headlines and attempt to trap people they interview into saying something that will generate the headline.

The second most important lesson when dealing with a headline-seeking reporter is to have a savvy public relations person on staff who knows the territory and is familiar with the agendas of journalists.

The most important lesson follows.

Consider Saying No

Some years ago, I arranged a mini-press conference—a round table discussion—for a client with a handful of reporters who I considered to be square shooters. The day before the roundtable, I was told that a prominent reporter that I had not invited learned of it and asked if he could be included.

I knew that reporter fell into the headline-seekers category and I said, “no,” because I knew the type of “gotcha questioning” he would ask, and if one reporter asked those type of questions, even the square shooters would be forced to act in concert.

That’s why I consider saying “no” to an interview request the first and most important lesson a PR person should remember.

Below are some other tactics when dealing with headline-seeking reporters:

  • Never immediately acquiesce to a reporter's request for an interview. Always say, “I’ll get back to you in a day or two," (and always do so). Use that time to research the reporter’s current stories, and then discuss with the client the pros and cons of doing the interview. Tell the client your concerns, if you have any. If the decision is not to do the interview, let the reporter know ASAP, saying that the client is not doing interviews for the foreseeable future.
  • If you do agree to do the interview, send the reporter detailed background information prior to the interview and insist on the following: For an in-person interview, you or a corporate PR person must be allowed to be there and tape the interview.
  • The client should have a list of talking points that can be referred to during the interview. If all the talking points are not covered when the reporter signals the end of the interview, the PR rep should say, "could we have another couple of minutes to cover some other points?” Always provide a written list of those talking points to the reporter at the conclusion.
  • When possible, try to have the reporter agree to an email interview so you can have an immediate record of the questions and answers.
  • Always advise the client not to answer “what if” questions.
  • If the reporter interrupts the client during an answer, the client should be told to say, “before answering other questions, I want to complete this answer.”
  • The taped interview should be immediately transcribed and sent by email to the reporter. Doing so might prevent the reporter from taking replies out of context.
  • The client should be told that even when the interview is over, anything said can be used. Restroom or elevator talk is fair game for the reporter.
  • Importantly, PR people should tell clients that just because something is said to be “off the record” doesn’t mean it won’t be used, if not now, maybe in a future story.
  • Clients should also be advised that they have no control of what the reporter’s story will look like.
  • Taped TV interviews are dangerous because answers can easily be taken out of context through selective editing.

PR people should remember that protecting a client’s reputation is more important than securing a hit. So sometime saying “no” to an interview request is the best public relations advice.

Arthur Solomon was a journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller who worked in sports and other sectors. Contact him: [email protected] 

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]