Public Relations

by Debbie Leven

If you are contacted by a journalist

There are a number of reasons why individuals in an organisation may be contacted by journalists:

  • On the back of a press release issued by the organisation
  • On the back of a press release issued by a competitor/other organisation
  • As a result of rumour or hearsay – about changes in the organisation/sector/related organisations/competitors, or about planned announcements and so on
  • As a result of something that has happened in the sector or impacts on the sector
  • Because a crisis or incident has come to light.

In any of these instances, it is important for the PR department to be kept informed:

  • If the department has issued a press release, then they may well have further briefing material that can be made available to the journalist. In addition, they will be keen to speak to the journalist to gauge the angle they are taking and help build a relationship
  • The PR department may well be aware of stories from other organisations. If these have an impact on your organisation, then someone in the department may well have drafted, or be in the process of drafting, a statement providing the ‘official line’ to be used in response to any enquiries
  • Rumour or hearsay – calls from journalists which question along these lines need careful handling; unless you have been specifically briefed to handle the calls, they should be referred to your PR department or specialist
  • The PR department will track what is happening in the sector to identify opportunities for comment and may well be preparing or issuing comment
  • Crisis or incident – if the organisation has been aware that a potential issue might be brewing, the PR department would probably have been involved in developing a PR handling strategy and the materials to support it.

On occasions, something may happen unexpectedly. Even if the PR department is unprepared they will call on their resources, experience, professional expertise and relationship with journalists in handling the situation.

What do I say to a journalist?

Even though some journalists may have regular contact with the PR department, it is not unusual for them to contact individuals in other departments directly for comment or interview. If a call or contact is unexpected, you should probably refer it to your PR department. Many organisations now have media-handling policies. In some, it can be a disciplinary offence to talk to the press and media without the authorisation of the PR department.

If you are contacted directly by a journalist, you should bear in mind some simple rules:

  • Be polite
  • Don’t be drawn into answering questions
  • Don’t say ‘no comment’
  • Don’t agree to go ‘off the record’.

The most effective approach is to ask the journalist for some information and agree that someone will call them back shortly. The information you need includes

  • The name and contact details of the journalist
  • The publication or programme they represent
  • The nature of the call – what specifically they want (questions answered, comment or an interview)
  • Where they got the story
  • Who else they have spoken to
  • The deadline they are working to.

Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much.

Robert Greenleaf

Take down this information with a note of the time and date you received the call and pass the information on to the PR department. It’s their job to follow up with the journalist and handle the query. They may, of course, come back to you for information or comment. In the first instance, however, unless you have been briefed specifically to handle the call, then it is best to pass the query to the PR department.

Why can’t I talk to the press?

To ensure consistency of messages, it’s important for the PR department to keep an element of control over who talks to the press and media. On the whole, PR departments will want to ensure that anyone talking to the press and media has received media training. This will give a potential interviewee

  • Experience of press and media interviews in the safety of a training environment – behind closed doors
  • A greater understanding of what the journalist wants from an interview
  • The tools to manage journalistic questioning and get the desired messages across.
  • The importance of understanding terms such as ‘no comment’ and ‘off the record’.

Handling press and media interviews can be difficult and daunting at the best of times. It’s important that any potential interviewee has been briefed fully and has had the opportunity to face questioning behind closed doors. Media training arms interviewees with the tools to get their messages across and handle journalistic questioning. The handling of any interview has an impact on the organisation’s reputation. Journalists use specific questioning techniques, so it is essential that anyone putting themselves in the media spotlight has had an opportunity to learn about, and prepare for, these techniques.

See the topic on Handling the Media