Media Training 101 from a press spokesperson

I have been a press spokesperson for 28 years. I have promoted “good news stories,” updated the media about taxpayer-funded programs, corrected the record and managed media crises for government organizations, private sector firms and individual clients.

Something I also do is prepare clients for media interviews. Before you write that off as “spin,” hear me out. Here’s the deal: If you can be better at telling your story, the reporter you are talking to is more likely to use your quotes. Everyone is better if they practice. And you have to practice the hard questions.

Here are the basics:

Never lie. That’s it. That doesn’t mean you have to bare your soul; be smart and strategic in your conversation. It does mean that if you say something untrue to a reporter, you are likely to get caught.

“No comment” is only slightly less bad than lying. I want my clients to always have something to say—even it’s an explanation why certain information can’t be disclosed. Issues under investigation shouldn’t be discussed. If you don’t know something, say so. “I don’t know” is still better than “no comment,” especially if you are willing to find out the answer and get back to the reporter.

Never miss an opportunity to use a commercial. Your conversation with a reporter is just that—a conversation. Answer the questions asked, but also include one of your own key messages that you have prepared in advance.

Ask the reporter what they want. This is huge. “What are you writing about?” “Who else have you spoken with?” “What are trying to show?” are all fair questions, and will help you shape the story to satisfy both you and the reporter.

Take away the “Gotcha” moment. I like to be proactive in telling my clients’ stories to the press, even if it means breaking bad news. You can diffuse a crisis by taking a transparent posture and providing proactive updates as facts emerge and action is taken. With crisis communication, emotions are high. Coming forward with your own information eliminates the defensive posture created by a reporter “catching” you at something. And if you tell the truth to the public, the public will believe you. Really. 

Don’t make the reporter do extra work. If asked for something that would be releasable under existing “sunshine” or transparency laws, just provide it. You’re going to have to anyway (even you, New Mexico government!). Forcing a public records request and stonewalling same just creates unnecessary tension and pretty much ensures the story will get more coverage, as the filing of the request becomes part of the story itself.

Be smart about social media. If you’re part of a news story, don’t feel that you can somehow say whatever you want on your social media accounts. This is how stories can go viral—when a tweet provides different information that in the original story. Unless you have a full-time social media staff, you are not going to have time to respond to trolls, criticism if you change your story or divulge new information yourself. Go private and keep things neutral.

In New Mexico, we still rely on our local news sources, whether print or digital publications, television or radio. And our communities are small enough that I don’t think anyone has the luxury of blowing off their local reporters. The best thing we can all do is help our local journalists document our local events.

Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She lives north of I-40 where she and her family run two head of dog, and one of cat.

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