The Business of Communicating with the Media

Crisis in news

The modern definition of an executive’s bad day: Arriving for work to find Bill O’Reilly or Anderson Cooper camped out in the lobby.

But even a routine call from a local reporter is enough to cause panic in many executives.  “What do they want?”  “What do I say?”  “Why me?,” they ask.

Increasingly, business news is front page news, no longer relegated next to the stock tables.  Critical stories about product recalls, mergers, downsizing and hostile take-overs often replace crime and politics on the front page.  Business news is hot.  And that leads to the real question:   Is your organization ready for intensive news media scrutiny?  Remember, reporters now demand company executives, not public relations people, for important interviews.

To deal with the media, savvy executives are learning “journalistic jujitsu,” by attending classes in media training and employing personal media coaches.  Release the story . . . but control the flow of negative information in a responsible manner.  By being candid and careful, business leaders can turn a bad situation into a positive public relations opportunity.  All of this is important for one simple reason: Perception is truth!

But understanding the media and learning how to deal with reporters is not something that can be absorbed through osmosis.  Media response workshops have replaced “stress management” as the training of choice in many companies.  The seminars, usually conducted by former journalists, provide executives a chance to learn privately from their mistakes rather than read about them in tomorrow’s newspaper or view them on the nightly news.

Executives are learning new techniques for dealing with intense media situations.  Terms such as “Bump and Run,” “Nuggets” and “Bridging” are being used to teach business leaders how to respond in a positive manner.

They are learning how to quickly bump the negative questions, then run to their own positive comment on the situation.  They learn how to stay “on-message.”

The nugget is another simple technique, yet often forgotten in the heat and glare of a tense news interview: Keep your answer short and to the point (10 seconds max.), and do not babble on with more than you need to say.  Without proper training and practice, you are doomed to failure.  Remember:  Reporters have done thousands (sometimes 10s of thousands) of news interviews in their careers.  How many have you done?

With professional training, savvy executives understand how to bridge an unfair question with a quick phrase: “That’s an interesting point, Tom, but the bigger question here is what our company has done to improve the situation.  For instance . . .”

The bump, the nugget and the bridge will soon be terms that are understood and practiced by modern executives from coast to coast.

Basically, the message remains the same: Be honest, be candid and beware.  Assemble the facts pertinent to the story.  Know what you want to say.  Candor receives more positive attention than “No comment.”

And the surprising result of candor is that an executive’s credibility is enhanced among those who matter most – employees, customers and stockholders.

Besides increasing credibility, being candid with a reporter usually gets his attention.  More than likely, a reporter who has been treated fairly will take a second look at releases touting new products or services rather than pitch them in the round file.  The upshot is positive coverage of those “good news” items you want to get before the public.

In the modern business world of instant communications, dealing with the media is not some-thing to be passed off to other staff members or dismissed as unimportant.  It begins with your commitment to learn and follow basic guidelines, such as:

  • Responding to questions as directly and briefly as you can in a positive manner.
  • Making yourself accessible to reporters.
  • Providing supplemental information in the form of fact sheets.
  • Having a professional understanding of the media’s needs.

Just as important, do not:

  • Mislead or lie.
  • Say “no comment.”
  • Argue with reporters.  Remember, they always have the last word.

The complete list of “do’s and don’ts” covers pages.  But what is important is the recognition that dealing with the media requires special techniques and a commitment to professional training.

In today’s media-intense climate, business leaders must realize one truism: Relationships with the news media are now a corporate responsibility and not just a concern for the public relations department.

By learning the “how-tos” of media interviewing, executives can calmly walk through the door of their offices, even if  “60 Minutes” is waiting in the lobby.

As a modern business leader, you need to be prepared, coached and aggressive.  Then, invite Anderson Cooper in for some coffee!