Media Relations & Crisis Communications
This section provides guidance on responding to media calls and requests and/or preparing for and conducting an interview. These steps represent best practices when responding to and conducting media inquiries. It is important to understand the following key steps leading up to an interview.
Gather as much information as possible from the reporter—understand who is calling and why. Seek the following information:
- The reporter’s name and their affiliation
- The focus of the story
- The reporter’s deadline
- Who else will be interviewed for the story
- How the reporter was referred to you
- If possible, try to glean the reporter’s audience—size, geographic location, ages, occupations, and interests
- For television or radio, whether the interview will be live, taped, or “live to tape” (a live interview that is aired at a later date)
- For television or radio, what the format of the segment will be (roundtable with multiple perspectives or a 1:1 interview)
- For radio, whether there will be listener call-in
Collect and organize your thoughts.
You do not have to talk to the reporter immediately. The reporter has had time to prepare, so you should grant yourself the same opportunity. It is important, however, to respect a reporter’s deadline.
Use your preparation time to do the following:
- Read through the tips and suggestions that follow in this toolkit.
- Prepare for likely questions.
- Outline two or three key points you want to make.
- Think about your visual appearance (in the event of a television interview). Clothes that are blue or red appear well on television. Avoid white—it can be too bright for television cameras—or clothing with small, busy prints.
If you are in a situation that does not allow you to fully prepare, then in a friendly manner ask the reporter for the following:
- The nature of the story he or she is working on.
- Specific questions he or she would like addressed.
- The deadline, in case you would like to provide supporting information after the interview.
- If you need additional time or resources to address a reporter’s questions, politely indicate to the reporter that you are interested in providing written responses to his or her questions.
- Emphasize personal stories of prevention and promotion. The impact of a proposed policy is often best illustrated in the many personal stories of people who have been or will be touched by it. Media like to tell a story through real-life case histories and examples. Think about how best to weave personal stories into the interview. Statistical information also can help illustrate the impact of the issue, if used accurately and sparingly.
- Be consistent. All responses to media inquiries should be consistent. To ensure consistency, adhere to key messages (see Key Messaging section) and delineate when you are speaking on behalf of yourself versus speaking on behalf of your organization or as an issue expert.
- Be honest, sincere, and confident. If you do not know the answer to a reporter’s questions, then say so. If you can find out, then do so.
- Avoid speculation. Do not speculate or answer hypothetical questions. If a reporter leads with, “Assume that…” or “What if…,” respond with something such as, “I am unable to speculate on that; however…” and state your positive message.
- Remain positive. Convey positive messages and responses. For example, if a negative question is posed, do not say, “No, our proposed initiative is not intended to….” Instead say what it is intended to do.
- Do not say, “No comment.” It sounds as if you have something to hide. If you do not have an answer, say so and let the reporter know that you will get back to him or her with information. If you do not want to discuss something, rephrase the general message or refer to your key messages on the topic. You do not have to answer specifics. Be firm but not abrasive.
- Keep it simple. Technical terms may be foreign to a reporter, particularly feature reporters. If a reporter fully understands you, he or she is more likely to incorporate your response into the story.
- Be concise. State your answer and stop. Do not fill in silent pauses. Often a reporter will ask a question, wait for your response, and then wait silently for you to elaborate. If a reporter seems to utilize this technique, provide your answer, stop, and ask the reporter if there are any other questions. A pause also provides you with the opportunity to add your two or three key points or collect your thoughts.
- Keep a record of press contacts. This will help you build important relationships with the media and remember which reporters are fair and balanced and should be called upon when you have something to say.
- Tips for television interviews. Often television coverage will only air your response to a question, not the question itself. For this reason, it is best to restate the question at the beginning of your answer. (Q: “How many people will be impacted by this new policy?” A: “This new policy will affect more than two-thirds of the population.”) Just answering with a number will be meaningless for viewers who do not hear the initial question and will lessen the chance that your response gets on the air.
It is important to understand some of the key parameters of a reporter’s job, in order to have realistic expectations about what a reporter can or cannot do to communicate your story. The following “do’s” and “don’ts” draw on an understanding of a reporter’s work to provide tips for making your voice heard, talking about your issue, speaking with reporters, spinning your message, and other basic tactics.
- DO be aware of a reporter’s deadline. Today’s 24/7 news cycle means that deadline hours vary. Educate yourself about reporters’ deadlines. The newspaper has to go to the printer; TV and radio shows have to air. If you have not called back by 3 or 4 p.m. at print newspapers, the reporter will get very nervous. By 4:30 p.m., you are out of the story. The same holds for TV news a couple of hours before airtime.
- DO pay attention to the general news cycle and what is happening elsewhere related to your issue. If something big is happening in the news that connects to your issue, make yourself available at deadline time and you may get into the story.
- DO translate numbers into concepts that are easy to grasp. For example, instead of saying “seventy-five percent of child abuse fatalities,” say, “three out of every four…”
- DON’T tell a reporter that you will give him an exclusive story, then offer it to a competitor. It is fair to provide reporters with a timeline for how long you are willing to hold a story, but let them know that if they are not willing to commit to a story within a specified timeframe you will offer it to another media outlet. When letting them know that you intend to seek out other media, avoid having this come across as a “threat.”
- DON’T ignore reporters’ phone calls. If you regularly miss their calls, they will stop calling. Be a resource even if you do not know the answer to a question. Tell a reporter: “You know, that’s not my area; but here are two people who do work on that. You should call them. Here are their numbers.” Reporters will appreciate the help.
- DON’T presume a reporter knows what you are talking about. Many in our field use acronyms, jargon, rhetoric, mission-statement talk, and insider lingo. Take the time to explain all acronyms and try to translate all terms into language that reporters and their audiences will understand.
The following crisis communications tips are provided by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Before the Crisis:
- Validators: Consider who the press goes to for comment when your agency is the focus of a crisis. Which elected officials, experts on your work, or advocates are likely to be called for comment? Develop a longer-term communication plan with these stakeholders to build their confidence in your agency, and have their contact information at hand so that you can deliver your message to them early in the crisis cycle.
- Form your crisis response team: When a crisis happens, you need to get key people into the same room or at least on the phone. Email is too time consuming, easily misunderstood and has the risk of spreading false information. Decide in advance to do this and know who you want at the table. It may be individuals (heads of communication or external affairs offices) and people to represent key or affected offices.
When the Crisis Starts:
- Buy (a little) time: Reporters will call quickly in the event of a crisis; sometimes they will be the ones to break the news of a crisis to you. Don’t react immediately or without planning your message. Ask the reporters what they need and when they need it. Get their numbers and emails and make a list of call backs.
- Finalize your core message and supporting talking points: Gather your crisis response team and decide on message and supporting talking points. Be prepared to share links to supporting or background information on your website. When you have your message, call back the reporters and deliver the message. Stay on message. ALWAYS respond within the current news cycle, which is typically within an hour or two.
- Come clean: If it’s a screw up, plain and simple, acknowledge it, apologize for it and have at least the beginnings of a plan for how it will be avoided in the future. It’s the best way to get it off the news agenda. If you don’t know if it’s a mistake, emphasize your participation in or leadership of any ongoing investigation.
- Communicate messages internally: Once you’ve developed your message, make sure all staff know what the message is. Since the issue and the response is sensitive, make sure only one or at most a few selected people take media calls. But consider all of your staff spokespeople and give them the information they need to address the crisis with each of their constituencies, from clients to family members.
- Communicate to validators: Go to your validator list and make sure they know the message you are delivering publicly. If they get a call from a reporter, they can say that they already received an email from the director of the agency ensuring them that they are taking needed steps.
- Don’t let reporters bait you: Questions like “doesn’t it really make you angry that …” are designed to provoke an emotional response. As are repetition of allegations against or attacks on your organization. Don’t fall for it. Stay cool and stay on message.
- Don’t attack anyone personally: Personal attacks and blame add fuel to a crisis story. They can also have longer-term ramifications for your organization and therefore the people you serve.