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.
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?