A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

There Is a Reporter on the Phone—Top 10 Tips

This is the third of a 3-part blog series to help funders leverage relationships with traditional media. Our thanks to Patti Giglio of PSG Communications, LLC, for her contributions to our new media toolkit for Exponent Philanthropy members, the basis for this blog series.

1. Consider the reporter’s inquiry an opportunity.

Most reporters want to get it right and approach their work with journalistic integrity. You should assume the inquiry represents an opportunity, not a threat.

2. Be helpful and responsive.

Journalists come back to people who are responsive. It is important to respond within an hour, even if it is only to gather information about what the reporter is looking for and understand her deadlines.

3. Start by gathering information.

Ask for the reporter’s name, affiliation, contact information, story line, and deadline. This is your opportunity to interview the reporter and learn about her story and how you can help. Appropriate questions include:

  • What is your deadline?
  • Who else are you speaking with?
  • Are there specific questions I can help with?
  • Can I help with photos or other visuals to tell your story?

4. Avoid spontaneous or off-the-cuff interviews.

It is important to always be courteous and respectful of the reporter’s time, but it is generally a mistake to do spontaneous or off-the-cuff interviews.

Thank the journalist for her interest in your organization or expertise and ask if you can gather answers to her questions and call her back.

Again, the rule of thumb is that you should respond to reporter inquiries within an hour, or expect that she will have moved on to someone else. Always be respectful of the reporter’s stated deadline.

5. Prepare for the interview and write key messages.

Remember that you are the expert. Journalists cover a broad range of issues and know a little about a lot. Be confident about your expertise and start with the basics.

Gather the information you need and write down three clear, succinct key points. Whenever possible, avoid acronyms and jargon. Support your points with impactful facts and compelling anecdotes or personal stories.

6. Force yourself to practice out loud.

Everyone is more effective when they practice, period. If time allows, ask a colleague to help you practice with mock questions and answers. Consider recording the practice session and reviewing the video as part of your preparation.

7. Always be transparent and honest.

Remember, you are much more of an expert on the subject than the journalist. Be confident about your expertise, but never speculate or speak about something you don’t know.

It is always better to say you do not know an answer than to try to bluff your way through a topic or line of questioning. It is perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question and, rather than speculate, I would be happy to research it and get back to you.”

8. Never say “no comment”; accept that there is no such thing as “off-the-record.”

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Assume that anything you say could end up in a story.

In extreme cases—if you absolutely must speak confidentially—carefully negotiate the rules of engagement, even with a trusted reporter. Phrases like off-the-record, on-background, and not-for attribution are often interpreted differently. Be crystal clear about the rules of engagement and understand that you are always taking a risk when you choose to speak to a reporter confidentially. If you agree to be an anonymous source for a story, you should ensure that you are not also a named, quoted source in the same story.

9. Insist on factual accuracy.

In today’s world of shrinking newsrooms and the ever-present demands of social media, reporters have little time to double-check facts.

Offer to help the reporter fact-check, or introduce her to a third party who can help ensure factual accuracy. If a reporter gets something factually wrong, request a correction and be sure the error is corrected in all digital stories. Do not hesitate to call an editor or supervisor to ensure factual accuracy.

10. The reporter will have an agenda; make sure you do too.

Journalists don’t just call out of the blue. They have a story they are working on or a lead they are trying to follow. In other words, whether benign or not, they will have their own agenda and will try to fill those needs. You should keep in mind your own agenda, aligned with the organization’s mission and goals, and see to it that your attitude, approach, and comments fulfill that agenda.

Download your copy of “A Funder’s Guide to Engaging With Members of the Media,” our new media toolkit for funders (Exponent Philanthropy members only) >>

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