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Recognizing when your clients may hold the key to their scandal-tinged story

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In the course of writing many controversial stories as a journalist for local and international publications of all sizes, never once did a source absolutely, positively have to speak to me.

Certainly, I would position situations in a way that would cause most to think it was in his or her interest to talk. But it was even more in my interest. It helped me be fair, which is important, but equally as compelling was the fact that the source’s words were often the key that opened the door to a story getting told at all.

It is a secret that most journalists don’t divulge—sometimes we don’t actually have enough substance to a scandal-tinged story until and unless the person caught in its crosshairs responds to our queries.

So if it appears that your client may have little choice but to acquiesce to a reporter’s persistent requests for an interview, recognize that you still have options: you can flat-out decline to talk or you can at least limit their remarks to a simple on-the-record statement.

Keep in mind: if legal authorities such as police officers and judges cannot compel people to speak (though they can impose sanctions and hold someone in contempt of court, if they like), journalists certainly are in no position to mandate a response.

Of course, during my reporting days, there are plenty of reasons why a source rightfully saw it in his or her best interest to speak with me. It truly represented a win-win situation.

There were also occasions, however, when sources continued speaking with me well past the point when it behooved them. In fact, if I were their publicist, I would not only have urged them to politely excuse themselves and decline to comment further (if at all), but I would have grabbed and hung up the phone (after a polite good-bye, of course) on my journalistic alter ego.

On a similar thread, in any sales-related transaction, whether it's a straight-up sale or some version of the art of persuasion, more than a few have been undone by their inability to recognize when they should be done.

Paraphrasing wisdom from the likes of Dave Severn and Theron Nelsen, Amway Diamonds for more than 30 years and leaders in the World Wide DreamBuilders organization: not having the sense to stop talking when you have "sold" someone on an idea or a project means you will run the risk of talking that person right out of it if you ramble on.

As a journalist, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of coaxing people to speak to me when it provided me with fodder to further expose their questionable behavior or even corrupt activities. And one of the tools that I wielded in those conversations was the damning information and critical remarks I had obtained from other sources.

“If you’d like,” I would explain, “this is your chance to respond and defend yourself.”

Doing so was only professional and fair—offering an opportunity for a subject to share his or her side of the story. But at the same time, as touched on above: without an active, almost point-by-point defense from the subject of a so-called scandal, there can be great reluctance among editors to publish the story.

The reasons at the root of that reluctance are as varied and complex as the broad array of stories that can be told. Sometimes, it’s a nagging sense that they don’t have enough clarity about a situation to be confident in running a story. The fear flowing from that feeling is that the murkiness could come back to haunt the media outlet with a later revelation that paints it as biased, sloppy, mean spirited—and leaves it vulnerable to legal action.

Off course, all bets are off if the media outlet, fairly or unfairly, harbors no such concerns.

And granted, this circle-the-wagons, decline-to-comment avenue isn’t for everyone, or for every situation. Most of the time, you will be just fine to answer questions directed your way. But it’s important to recognize those occasions when saying nothing may be your best course of action.

Here, briefly, are three common circumstances:

1. When you have strong reason to believe that there is a “hatchet job” in the works.

2. When there is little that you could say to counteract criticism or allegations.

3. When you are blind-sided.

Next: Elaborating on the three common signs when your client may hold the "key" to their scandal-tinged story.

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