After two decades in the media business, I’ve heard organizations, nonprofits and businesses ask many questions or make comments that irk reporters. For this list, I’ve omitted the ridiculous, “Oh, our event starts in five minutes, can you come out and cover it?” Um, no. But have no fear, there are many, many other gems that keep popping up.
Here are 10 things to avoid saying to reporters (who, by the way, are 10 times more stressed by workload and staff cuts, and don’t need you adding to the aggravation). Good media relations starts with knowing what to say, and what NOT to say.
1. “No comment.” Few words in a news story create the perception of defensiveness and having something to hide than saying ‘no comment’. Don’t think you’re thwarting a reporter by saying ‘no comment’. Most reporters love receiving a ‘no comment’. They’ll simply strategically position you in the story, sandwiched between other sources who would comment. Now, who’s going to look bad? The solution: Learn to comment, even when you don’t want to.
2. “That’s important, why didn’t you write that down?” Don’t ever tell a reporter to write something down. Reporters are trained to filter what you say. If a reporter isn’t writing something down, the odds are what you’re saying isn’t compelling enough. If you aren’t thinking like a reporter, then more of what you say may be left out.
3. “Your story should’ve been about this…” Don’t try to dictate. If you don’t like the angle of a story, suggest ideas for a followup. The key words being: suggest, ideas.
4. “I want to read the story before it’s published.” This is the ultimate offensive request to make of a reporter who is telling more than one side of a story. To allow one side access to a story before it’s published is showing bias. If you persist with wanting access to stories before they are published, you will be crossed off a media contact list fast. If you’re concerned about quotes, ask to have them read back to you. Same goes for facts.
5. “This part is off the record” or “You didn’t hear this from me, but…” If you don’t want to read it on the Internet, in a newspaper, hear it on the radio, or see it on the TV news, don’t say it. Anything you mention off the record can still be utilized by a reporter who may attempt to have it confirmed through other sources, thereby making it reportable.
6. “Sorry, but the person who handles that is not in the office this week.” You should always have a backup person for media relations. Readers, viewers and listeners expect answers if a news story breaks and it involves your organization. Be prepared to be accountable… even when vacation season arrives at your office.
7. “If you can just hold off on the story we’ll make sure you get it first when we’re ready to talk.” Yeah, right. Ask any reporter and they’ll tell you they’ve been burned before by this ‘promise’. If you ask this question you’re rolling the dice; many reporters may just charge ahead with the story if it’s deemed to be of public interest. And you’ll be identified in the story as having ‘no comment’. Yikes (see #1).
8. “What’s your deadline, we’ll get back to you?” The word deadline is an anxiety-filled word to reporters who seldom want to wait. While you delay, the reporter will be seeking other sources who are ready now. The more often you can show you’re ready, the more frequently you’ll be at the top of the list as a go-to source for reporters. If you can avoid the ‘deadline’ word and instead make a stronger commitment, “Can I call you back in XX minutes?” you’ll do a much better job of relationship building with the reporter.
9. “Look, I’m being honest with you..” When you make a comment like this, you introduce a whiff of dishonesty to a conversation. This only whets the appetite of reporters seeking the real truth.
10. “Did you receive the press release I sent?” Dozens upon dozens of press releases stream into newsrooms everyday. Journalists are too busy working the phones, racing to meet deadline, tweeting, editing video, downloading photos, etc., to be filing and sorting releases as they arrive. Asking a reporter a question like this is akin to a long lineup at the reporter’s desk, with everyone shouting to distract his/her attention away from the work at hand. It’s frustrating. And it’s a bother. If your release is important, it will be noted by an editor (hopefully!). If you’ve developed an effective media relations strategy, you’ll already know the best ways (email, social media, phone, text messaging, etc) to reach reporters working the beats that affect your organization. If you don’t, start asking reporters about their preferences.