If you ever speak to a reporter…

The Interview
The Interview (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those who have never spoken to a reporter, or been media-trained, here are a few basic ground rules that might be helpful.

This first one is a new and — to a veteran like me — really egregious problem:

Pre-publication, social media are off limits! Do NOT tweet or Facebook giving any hint of who is coming to interview you, what about or for which media outlet.

I’ve been working in journalism since 1978 and younger public relations people, as well as journalists and photographers, have done this to me and to Jose, my husband who assigns photographers for The New York Times, causing us personal and professional embarrassment or worse. They seem to have no understanding that journalism — more than ever! — is a highly competitive industry. The second you tip my hand to any of my competitors, I’ve lost the whole point of my story, which is to beat them, possibly handily, to a great piece they have yet to notice or work on themselves.

If a reporter wants to interview you, ask them a few questions before you agree, or begin speaking:

How long is the piece? What section is it running in, or, if a magazine, which issue? What’s your deadline? What’s your angle? Who else are you speaking to? (They may not tell you.) It’s helpful to understand how your comments or views fit into the larger picture.

Don’t insist on reviewing your quotes before publication.

This is taboo for almost all reporters. It wastes their time, it slows down production and — most importantly — it shows ignorance of journalism norms. Many magazines still employ fact-checkers, people who will call you up later to ensure that what is said by or about you is factually accurate. Freelancers tightly budget their reporting time and may be speaking to a dozen sources or more, not just you. We don’t have time!

You can speak on background, off the record, not for attribution or on the record. Make sure you are clear before the interview begins and that both you and the reporter have agreed.

On background means they will never name or identify you in any way. You’re helping them better understand a complex issue and possibly pointing them to other sources, but you won’t be named as the referral source. NFA means I can broadly identify you: “A highly-placed White House source” or “A 20-year employee”, i.e. your name and title are not used, but your credibility or authority is established. If you speak on the record, every word you say can be used and attributed to you by name.

English: Ft. Pierce, FL, September 16, 2008 --...
English: Ft. Pierce, FL, September 16, 2008 — FEMA Public Information Officer(PIO) Renee Bafalis and Community Relations(CR) Specialist Rene Haldimann speak on camera with WPTV-TV (5) reporter Bryan Garner at a manufactured home park which was affected by Tropical Storm Fay. George Armstrong/FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can ask for questions in advance — but it’s annoying.

Yes, you want to prepare. But we expect you to know your stuff well enough to anticipate most questions.

Every good interview will also go off on a few tangents. We don’t want to — and won’t — stick to a pre-determined list.

Don’t put us on a choke chain.

It’s annoying, but common, to have a press officer in the room or on the phone with us during an interview, but if you don’t give us enough time, or interrupt us, we’ll just pester you and your staff later.

Don’t haggle or harangue about attribution after you’ve spoken.

Once an interview has begun, unless you say “This is off the record” before you say it, it’s on, and usable. Same with phone interviews. If doing it by email, mark these comments off clearly.

During a phone interview, ask if the reporter is taping or taking notes.

They’re likely doing both. A note-taker (like me) may need additional time to catch up.

Ask how much time they need, and make sure you have no interruptions.

Some may only need five or ten minutes, others an hour or more. I’m suspicious of any reporter who wants only a very brief interview as most issues are too complex for a sound bite. Television and radio interviews demand precise, quick answers — but print interviewers may want a lot more detail, and time.

Research the reporter beforehand.

Everyone is findable now: Google and LinkedIn being the two quickest and easiest ways to get a sense of who you’ll be speaking with. Are they fair-minded? Experienced? Well-regarded in the industry? If you can spare the time to read a few things they’ve written — and can genuinely compliment them on one — why not? It shows us a little respect as well.

What have I left out?

Related articles

26 thoughts on “If you ever speak to a reporter…

  1. Great article; very useful to get a perspective on how the reporter/journalist is viewing an interview or interviewee, and get acquainted with some industry jargon. Knowing this before the fact would really help the process and protect everyone’s personal and professional interests. πŸ™‚

  2. Thanks! Senior execs usually get media trained but a lot of people may end up on the other end of a camera, tape recorder or notebook and have no idea of the “rules.” All reporters know them, but civilians often don’t.

    The biggest issue is remembering that the reporter wants information — NOT to protect your interests, per se. Hellish confusion and some real anger or frustration can ensue when the two don’t align.

  3. Apropos ‘off the record’, I’m scrupulous myself to honour the phrase if I’m interviewing – but I’ve been caught out when being interviewed (wearing my book-writing hat) by a journo who didn’t – though he knew as well as I did what the phrase is to journalists. Takes all sorts, I guess, and of course integrity is a commodity that’s hard to earn back once it’s blown.

    On the other hand, it’s those off-the-record comments that usually provoke notoriety…what’s the saying about there being no bad publicity? πŸ™‚

    1. Hell, yes. I was interviewed in my 20s about my coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s tour and I thought (insane) I was just talking to a British tabloid reporter (ha!) — my comments ended up on the front page of one of them. Terrifying and instructive. Never assume anyone shares your ethics!

  4. I took a media training class in university, they told us to assume that there was no such thing as “off the record” when talking to a journalist. I’ve always respected when a subject wanted to say something off the record, but I know that they’ve been hesitant, it’s hard to know who you can trust sometimes.

    1. I just finished an interview — filled with great quotes — and the guy said “You can’t use my name.” Gah. So he’ll be, as he requested, “a securities lawyer” instead. I just won’t say anything to anyone assuming they are trustworthy. People have widely varying ethics!

  5. Very informative, and a great idea for a post! You see lots of blog posts about how to interview, yet very few on how to be interviewed. Thank you for liking my post Blogging As A Writer!

      1. Exactly! Although I probably tend toward the opposite. I’m more nervous about being interviewed than doing the interviewing. As the interviewer, you have time to research and prepare questions, plus you have time after the interview to go over everything and write it how you like. When you are being interviewed, you only have that time. So, if you say something stupid, it is recorded forever (even if you try to take it back!).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s