Top 5 Things to Do When the Media Calls

July 10, 2018

By Tara Deering-Hansen

I’ve been there. You’re hurrying to a meeting and your cell phone rings. You instinctively answer, and on the other end is a reporter firing off questions about an issue with your company that you’re completely unaware of.

What do you do? Or, more importantly, what do you say?

Whether you’ve made efforts to have the media call you or you’ve been caught off guard like in this scenario, you should always have a strategy for how you’ll interact with reporters. Why? Because what’s said during those first few minutes is critical.

Like most things in life, you get better at interacting with the media the more you do it. Unfortunately, how frequently your company receives a media call is based on several variables, such as its size, industry/type of work and customer base. 

So, whether you’re a seasoned pro or someone who fields a reporter call once every six months, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

1. Keep your cool

If you pick up your phone and there’s a reporter on the other end who launches into a series of questions, don’t panic. Those first few seconds will set the tone for any follow-up conversations as well. Listen attentively to the reporter, but keep in mind that anything and everything you say will be on the record and fair game.

Set the tone that you want to be helpful and provide the reporter with accurate information by saying, “Thanks for reaching out to me. I’ll have to check into that item before I can answer any of your questions.” It’s always OK to gather your thoughts and confirm information before providing a statement.

2. Take notes

Reporters typically have a script they follow when reaching out to sources. They identify themselves and then they explain the story they’re working on. If you’re in a position to, always take written notes. These will be valuable as you collaborate with your internal team to gather information and draft a response. 

I always like to let the reporter talk during this time. As the reporter explains the story, write down any questions that pop into your head but don’t interrupt. I find that you can learn a lot about the information a reporter wants and the direction of his or her story by simply listening.

3. Ask questions

Yes, technically it’s the reporter’s job to ask questions. But good reporters expect good PR people to ask them questions. The No. 1 rule to remember is be respectful. Don’t ask reporters, “So, what’s the angle of your story?” or say to them, “Send me your questions.” Instead, ask clarifying questions about the specific information your company can provide. Explain that you’re asking these questions so that you can reach out to the appropriate subject matter expert within your company.

To learn the scope of the story or how your company fits into it, politely ask who will be quoted in the story or what other companies/leaders have been contacted for comment. And always remember to ask the reporter’s deadline. Your company won’t have a voice in the story if you miss the deadline.

4. Say ‘I don’t know’

If you remember one thing from this article, remember this — it’s OK to appear unknowing when talking to reporters. Notice that I said unknowing rather than unknowledgeable. Being unaware of certain information at a certain time, doesn’t make you dumb. In fact, most reporters prefer to hear “I don’t know, but let me find out and get back to you” because they want accurate information the first time. You’ll lose credibility and trust with the media when having to circle back and retract something you said too soon.

5. Follow up quickly

In today’s media landscape, newsrooms are stretched extremely thin and reporters are being asked to push out more stories faster than ever before. The 24-hour news cycle has become the 12-hour news cycle, which means you can’t wait until your lunch meeting is over to call back a reporter.

Do your best to respond to reporters’ voicemails, emails or texts as soon as possible, or no longer than an hour after their initial outreach. If you’re in a meeting or unable to speak over the phone, shoot them an email stating you received their call and when you’ll be available. Remember, a simple response of acknowledgement is always better than no response.

When you communicate effectively with reporters, you build trust and an understanding of your respective roles. While cultivating these relationships takes time, you can gain reporters' respect more quickly by incorporating the steps above into your media relations strategy. If you'd like to know more media relations tips, we'd love for you to reach out to us!