"Deer In The Headlights" Is Not A Media Strategy
Whether you regularly deal with the media or not, if you are anywhere near the professional communications field, at some point you will get a call from a reporter.
How are you planning to handle that?
Screenshot source here
Here's a quick graphic (download the slide here) offering some very basic steps you can take to be ready for that call. See explanatory notes below.
Step by step:
1. Coordinate response: Reporters are always, always in a crazy rush. However, the information you provide is forever, so you cannot provide a rushed response. Your official organizational representative, whether that's a PR firm, your own internal press relations folks, or whoever - should be the lead and you work across stovepipes to get them the information they need to provide the reporter.
2. Package information: People assume that reporters somehow "should" know what is available. They don't. In fact, reporters are immersed in a sea of information. It is almost overwhelming for them to sort out what matters and what doesn't. Moreover they are often looking for information that is not readily apparent. What they need is to have primary data packaged for them so that they can use it in a story. Optimally this data will already be out in the public sphere. Ideally you will give them links to official, releasable photos, fact sheets, reports, and video footage, in that order. Then, if they want to do a followup, they will be better situated to ask for what is lacking.
3. Document response: Reporters prefer talking on the phone to corresponding by email, for obvious reasons. Email is very static and dead, and it doesn't give them an opportunity to ask an expert directly about whatever areas are of most interest - about gaps in the available information - about the angle of the story that is of primary interest to them. At the same time, a telephone conversation is liable to be misinterpreted and you may be misquoted. As a protective measure for yourself, and as a reference point in case there is any confusion or inaccuracy later on, write down what you said in the conversation, and email it from your work account to your work account to keep it secure. If the reporter tapes the conversation, tape it yourself as well - don't rely on the reporter to give you a copy.
4. Always on the record: You know this already, but it can be difficult to remember in the moment when you are engaged back and forth with the reporter on some issue. The reporter may bait you to say something and it's not clear whether it's for the story or not for the story, whether you're on the record or off. In your head you should be thinking, "I am always on the record here." That way, you will be less likely to say or release something you shouldn't.
5. Simple and visual: It's not enough to package information for reporters, although that's good. Everything you convey to them - whether verbally or in writing - should be conveyed in simple, visual terms. This means that they should be able to picture in their minds the words you are saying. If you are making a complicated point comparing this versus that, or describing an official position on a matter, this is all the more important. Imagine that you are stranded on the side of a highway, have one phone call, and the person you've reached is not a native English speaker. Simple, clear, visual and to the point.