Working with journalists – tips from a former “hack”

22nd December 2016

By Tim Cobb

Our media training sessions for senior executives who may one day need to talk to journalists are very insightful.

Their key concerns revolve around trust, anxiety and sometimes complete terror at the prospect of having to talk to a journalist.

Let’s explore these concerns in a bit more detail and see if I can reassure you, or at least allow you to have a more balanced view.

Describe the DNA of a journalist

Journalists are human beings, although they sometimes function in different ways to Joe Average. While some journalists have a specialism (e.g. crime reporter, science correspondent etc), the majority are “jacks of all trades.” They have a fair chunk of knowledge across a very wide range of subjects.

This means that in 99.9% of cases, you will know a vast amount more about your subject than the journalist.

Journalists have bucket-loads of common sense. They understand deadlines with great intimacy and will break-down a complex issue, or story, into manageable bite-sized chunks of information.

In most stories they pursue, there is a good guy and a bad guy. Although some stories cannot be tackled through such a simplistic approach, it is always good to have this at the back of your mind.

Can I trust a journalist?

That rather depends if you have something to hide. If it is a fairly simple story about a new product/service, staff appointments, winning an award, then you have nothing to fear. A journalist will see the story for what it is ….a nice, easy article that will fit anywhere on a news page or online.

If there is the potential for negativity … business downturn leading to two redundancies … be cautious in your dealings with a journalist. Although the redundancies probably could not be helped, the journalist could focus on the “human interest” side of the saga. In other words, the journalist could talk to the former members of staff and write a story about the hardship that the redundancy has caused. This would fall into the good guy/bad guy category.

So should you still deal with a journalist enquiry? Yes. If you offer a bland “no comment”, you are giving the journalist a free pass to portray you in as bad a light as they see fit. An easier way to deal with it is to release a statement, explaining how you reached the decision to make redundancies and what you have done/are doing to try and help find the two people alternative jobs/welfare support.

Can I talk “off the record” to a journalist

This is a question that often arises. The simple answer is: “it depends.”

Ask yourself the following questions:

Do you know the journalist?

Have you dealt with him/her in the past?

Is there something to gain from discussing the issue “off the record?”

What does the journalist understand by “off the record?” The common meaning is that you are giving them information that will assist with their understanding of the bigger picture, but requesting that they do not drop you in it by using this information. In other words, you put the journalist in a difficult position. You tease them with a few juicy tit-bits, but tell them they must not use them.

However, there are times when it is useful to share this bigger picture. I will often do this to try and show the journalist that he/she is barking up the wrong tree and that, with further digging, there is a better story to be had.

Is it ok to lie to a journalist to get them off the scent?

The only time is it is acceptable to lie to a journalist is when you have a 100% chance of NEVER being found out. And as that day will never dawn, I recommend that you never tell lies. One lie leads to another and all will eventually be unravelled at some point in time.

You may be able to distract a journalist by seeking to move their thought-processes in a more helpful (to you) direction, but always be careful. In most cases, it is far easier to put you hand up, admit your mistakes and explain what you are doing to make amends. It’s not easy, but it could mean the difference between survival and catastrophe. 

There’s a journalist on the phone, book me a one-way flight to Argentina!

For some, a phone call from a journalist is akin to sticking pins in your eye. If this is how you feel, there is little I can say to persuade you otherwise. I suggest you find another person in your organisation who might be better at dealing with journalists … or book onto a Cobb PR media training day and discover what you have been missing!

For more information or to book onto a media training course, drop into Cobb HQ or give us a call on 01323 416999.

Tim started his working life as a journalist in 1981 and served 15 years in newspapers, magazines and the UK’s top news agency, The Press Association. In 1995 he set up his own PR agency, Cobb PR, and in 2013 went into partnership with James Dempster to establish the online agency, Cobb Digital. The Cobb Group now comprises 24 communications and digital marketing specialists.

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