There's a memorable scene at the end of The Candidate, as the reality sinks in to Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford) that he has just won a United States Senate seat.
Pulling campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) away from a mob of reporters and supporters, McKay has the appearance of a deer in headlights as he asks, "What do we do now?"
The exchange was an indictment of the superficiality of political campaigns, of the emphasis of style over substance. There was no sequel to the 1972 movie, so the audience can only speculate how McKay would have turned out as a Senator.
But in the field of public relations, we have a steady stream of opportunities to anticipate how to handle the "what now?" question when the media comes calling. While each story has a life all its own, with opportunities and vulnerabilities to address, there are some hard-and-fast absolutes that you should adhere to.
So whether you are an interviewee rookie or a seasoned pro who has dealt with the media for many years, what follows are three "always" and three "never" tips that will aid you in developing better media relations and more consistently positive media coverage:
1. ALWAYS give (relatively) short answers
We're not advocating one- or two-word replies. There's nothing to be gained by behaving as if you are from the Cro-Magnon era. But steer clear of the temptation to offer a detailed history of whatever topic you are discussing.
Remember: reporters are usually not too far away from a nerve-wracking deadline, so do them (and yourself) a favor by providing direct, succinct answers to questions they pose.
If you're concerned this approach will mean vital information going unshared, remember the reporter usually will have a follow-up question that will enable you to expand on your initial answer or answers. And what if the reporter fails to follow up with a question you want to answer? Just make sure you sprinkle in that information later in the conversation.
2. ALWAYS prioritize your main points
There’s only so much room in a story, so you can’t expect the reporter to squeeze everything you say into the piece. Related to the first point of offering short answers, keep in mind that reporters have only so much space for their stories and the more rambling you do on lesser details increases the likelihood of that stream-of-consciousness overshadowing your most important messages.
"The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
That quote, attributed to the late Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is a powerful guide when properly applied. It's a remark uttered more than a few times by leaders of World Wide Group, an Amway Approved Provider, such as Howie Danzik and Nam-Deuk Kim as they counsel Independent Business Owners to resist distraction.
Those distractions might come in any variety of forms, such as unproductive activities that pull them away from achieving optimal business performance. Another common way that distractions enter the picture is through providing so many details to prospective clients or fellow IBOs that they lose sight of the business fundamentals.
Same goes for conducting an effective interview. Focus on two or three key points. If your priority list extends longer than that, you risk diluting the absolutely essential points that you wan to be sure to get across.
3. ALWAYS try to become a helpful resource
Ask reporters if they are willing to share the gist of other pieces they are working on. Or, at least, ask for examples of other types of stories they write, if you haven't already had a chance to do the background that would already answer that question.
What you are getting at--and should tell them--is that you are glad to be a resource who helps provide ideas or sources for those other stories in the future.
This isn't about trying to become best buddies forever. Simply state your genuine desire to nurture a relationship that builds value for them over time. Not only will this media-centric mindset distinguish you from most other sources, but it will heighten the chance that they will turn to you as a source in the future.
1. NEVER ask (or demand) to see the story before it runs.
This reveals a varying mix of ignorance, presumptuousness and naivete. It will prompt quality reporters to bristle or, at the least, roll their eyes.
During my journalism career, I fielded this request more times than I can recall. Each time, I diplomatically explained that wasn’t possible. In many cases, people with little to no prior media interaction simply didn’t know how the news-gathering and reporting process worked. Other times, such as when it was a public official or someone who ought to have known better, their credibility instantly diminished in my eyes.
2. NEVER say anything that you would not want to see in print.
Regardless of the frequency with which you have spoken with a reporter, and regardless of how many flattering pieces he or she may have written about you, don't say anything that you wouldn't want the world to read tomorrow.
This includes anything you might say while “off the record.” Although I always honored the OTR pact--and even encouraged sources to go off the record to help us build trust or so that I could gain insight otherwise unavailable--not every reporter wields the same basic sense of ethics.
3. NEVER lie or mislead.
Once reporters discover you have duped them, they won’t soon forget it.
Frequently, too, if you earn this dubious reputation, reporters will ramp up the “gotcha” game. That's the journalistic equivalent of looking for ways to catch you in a lie, no matter how trivial or petty.
No longer will you get the benefit of the doubt with a reporter who has been wronged after you have committed this cardinal sin. Over the years covering men and women, both those brimming with integrity and those on the opposite end of the spectrum, I can attest to the consequences heaped upon those who commit this particular “never.”
And that’s no lie.