9 Ways to Prepare for the Unprepared Reporter

Oct 21, 2014 admin

Last week in interview between a C-level executive of a Fortune 500 and a reporter at a major daily newspaper, the reporter got on the phone and started out by saying, “Remind me what we are talking about today.”

Cringe. PR person summarizes subject to be discussed. Exec acts polite and pretends to roll with it. Reporters asks spontaneous stream of questions. Call ends. Exec yells at in-house communications manager. Client yells at InkHouse. All asking the same thing:

 “How could THIS happen?”

THIS… after multiple conversations, emails and background materials exchanged between the reporter and the PR person.

But the truth is, THIS happens more and more everyday. As reporters are crunched for time, they often enter interviews without having done much, if any, prep. This is especially true when the PR person suggested the story topic and pitched the interview (versus the reporter coming to you with a story idea in mind). Obviously the subject interested the reporter in the first place or he wouldn’t have taken the interview. But as a PR professional, you can’t count on that meaning that the reporter will have everything in front of him  or her for the interview.

Most PR people jump through hoops to make sure the reporter is vetted, is given all the background (usually in long form and in bullets to make it easier), and to confirm the time and subject matter of the interview.

Yet, despite all this preparation, you should be ready if a reporter seems unprepared. It is just the reality of today’s fast-paced news cycles and reporters who are often stretched too thin.

So how do you prepare for the unprepared reporter?

  1. Expect the reporter to know nothing. Ask him upfront if he had a chance to look at the background that was sent. If not, use the opportunity to open up the conversation and message the news in the way you see fit.
  2. Stay calm, don’t show you’re annoyed… but also don’t be a pushover. This is your chance to take the lead.
  3. Be careful not to mistake a reporter’s silence for unpreparedness. Sometimes silence is the way reporters get you to over-answer questions – especially tough ones. Don’t feel the need to fill the silence. Answer the reporter’s questions and move on.
  4. If the reporter goes off topic, politely steer him back to the intended subject matter. Use segues such as, “Today we’re together to talk about X…” and get back on track.
  5. Similarly if the reporter is asking irrelevant questions, reframe the question in the right direction with transitions such as, “I think a better question is…” or “What’s relevant here is….”
  6. Don’t answer questions based on a flawed premise. For example, if the reporter asks a question that has inaccurate information baked in, politely point it out and don’t answer the question. The same goes for speculative questions based on an idea you are unfamiliar with (e.g. “I hear Google is thinking of entering your space. How do you feel about that?”) This is an important rule of thumb in all interviews, but especially in cases where reporters have not had a chance to do any prep.
  7. After the interview concludes, send the reporter a thank you and follow-up note summarizing the key points of the conversation and also ensure that he has your materials. You’d be surprised how many times reporters will use it.
  8. Don’t go back afterwards and ask your PR team to pull the story. If you move forward with the interview, expect the story to appear. If the interview is going wildly off track, politely end the call. Note, however, that this should only be done in the most extreme circumstances.
  9. Once the story appears, make sure it is on track. If not, you can request the corrections – but only to the facts. Don’t expect a reporter to change tone or opinions – and asking for those kinds of changes can hurt your relationship with the reporter (and the publication) down the road.

Remember it is the job of the spokesperson – along with the PR team – to tell your story in the interview. Don’t let an unprepared reporter keep you from missing the opportunity!

Topics: InkHouse, Media Relations, Media Training, Public Relations, Client Relations, Journalism, PR

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