Dealing with the media can be intimidating. But if you understand journalists' objectives, the fear disappears and you can recognize media management as an opportunity to tell your organization's story. Use this checklist to boost your confidence when dealing with the media.

Getting to Know You

When you first meet a reporter, find out as much as you can about what his/her needs are. Some like news releases, some don't. Many reporters don't mind your buying them coffee; others do.

  • One of the first questions you should ask a reporter is, “What is your deadline?” Always be sensitive to reporters' deadlines.

  • Look at each contact with the media as an opportunity, whether it is a positive or negative story.

  • Release information to the media quickly and accurately. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so and try to find it.

  • Be as open as possible. This will help develop a long-term relationship.

  • Return reporters' calls promptly, preferably within 30 minutes.

  • Show concern for the reporter's questions.

  • Make efforts to refer the reporter to the source who can get the information needed.

  • If you can't release information, explain and document why.

  • Don't pit one local station or newspaper against another.

  • Let your media contact know about positive stories, but don't cry wolf.

What a Reporter Looks for in a News Story

A reporter needs certain ingredients for a news story. If you know what those ingredients are, you will know more about how you can help yourself and the reporter at the same time. You will also be able to sell your stories to the news media better! A good news story may contain one or several of the following elements:

  • It affects people's everyday lives.

  • It affects a lot of people.

  • It pulls on the emotions of the reader.

  • It involves government waste or savings.

  • It is controversial.

  • It involves human suffering or dignity.

  • It helps those in need.

  • It is different or unusual.

  • It has is immediacy.

  • Its subject matter is of national interest.

Questions, Questions, Questions

No matter how much you prepare, you will always get a question that you don't expect. Here's what you should do when that happens:

  • If you don't know the answer to a reporter's question, no matter how tempting it is to give an answer on the spot, simply say that you don't know but that you will find out. When the interview is over, follow through on that promise.

  • Remember: who, what, when, where, why, and how are the essential elements of a good news story.

  • Ask yourself what the average person will want to know about this story.

  • Ask yourself what your industry associates will want to know.

  • Determine three major points you want to make during an interview. Stick with those points.

  • Review, but don't memorize your responses. You don't want to sound “canned.”

  • Be sincere.

  • Correct the reporter if a question he or she asks is based on incorrect information.

‘Off the Record’

The safest bet is to never go “off the record.” However, in my seminars and my experience as a news reporter, I have met several people who have used this technique to their advantage. As a news reporter, I wanted people to give me information “off the record” to guide me in the right direction during my news-gathering process. However, many people have been burned by “off the record” remarks that have ended up in a story. If the answer is “no” to any of the following questions, it's not a good idea to go “off the record.”

  • Do you trust the reporter?

  • Do you want the information to be made public?

  • Do you have a clear understanding of what the reporter means and does the reporter have a clear understanding of what you mean by “off the record”? For example:

    1. Giving the reporter background that's not to be used in the story.

    2. Giving the reporter background to be used in the story, but not attributed to you.

  • Can you be sure that your colleagues, competitors, or the target of the story won't guess that you are the confidential source?

  • Will going “off the record” serve a productive purpose for you?

When the Interview Is Over

The post-interview period is a crucial time. A lot of people make mistakes because they think the reporter has quit taking notes, or the camera is off. Don't bet on it! However, it can also be an opportunity to build credibility with the reporter.

  • Offer to get the reporter information you may not have known about or had access to during the interview.

  • Don't make any off-the-cuff remarks.

  • Don't laugh. The photographer may still have the camera on.

  • Later in the day, call the reporter and ask if he/she has all the information needed.

  • Show your appreciation to the reporter when it is appropriate.

    1. If you liked the story, write a note to the reporter saying so. It's not a good idea to say, “Thanks for the publicity.” It's better to say, “Thank you for your fairness.” The reporter isn't doing the story to give you PR, but because the information will be useful or interesting to the public.

    2. Let the reporter know about other sources of information that can add to the story. Be ready with names and numbers. This will help the reporter get more in-depth and get the jump on the competition, and it will help you build credibility!

Al Rothstein is the president of Al Rothstein Media Services, Inc., which specializes in strategic news media campaigns and media interview skills training for the health care industry. He is a member of the American Society of Association Executives Communications Counsel. The firm has shaped public relations strategies for the pharmaceutical industry and medical associations on issues such as drug development, and regulatory issues. Al has worked with organizations such as the Malignant Hyperthermia Association, Florida Society of Anesthesiologists, American College of Dentists, and the Mountain Plains Health Consortium. Before starting his consulting practice, Al had 25 years of experience as an investigative and medical reporter in television, radio and newspaper, and as a public relations spokesperson. Al offers a free electronic media tips newsletter and can be reached at mediabrain@rothsteinmedia.com, (866) MD-MEDIA (866 636-3342), or www.rothsteinmedia.com > .