A guide to making the most of increasingly limited, but valuable, opportunities to speak with the press.
There are more ways than ever before to communicate directly with your customers—on blogs, through Twitter and Facebook and, of course, on your website. All of these tools allow you to provide great information on a timely basis, exactly the way you want. (And let's hope you have a good communications person helping you figure out how to do that, ok?)
But smart companies still strive to have their products, services, and approach chronicled in the press – broadcast, print, and web-based.
Why? Maybe I'm biased (I count reporters among my closest friends), but it is the editorial independence and news judgment that makes news coverage so valuable. A reporter's job is to evaluate the facts and present them in a way that is useful to the public. And as much as members of the press come under fire for alleged political views, they are still by and large considered a reliable filter of information.
So how do you make the most of your opportunity with the press? By understanding that a reporter's job is not to promote your product or service, but to tell an interesting story that is valuable to his or her audience of readers or viewers. The following tips give you a few things to consider before your next interview.
NB: While bloggers certainly have their place in the world of new-media, the rules for dealing with them are a little different and this article sticks mostly to traditional TV, print and online media (meaning web-based magazines).
Talking to the Press: Read the Reporter's Clips
Do a little bit of advance research about the reporter you'll be speaking with and the outlet they work for. This legwork can go a long way to making sure your interview goes well – and raises the odds that you and your company will actually be mentioned it in an article. What should you try to learn ahead of time? Some tips:
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Talking to the Press: Know Your Message
As your company's public voice, you could probably talk forever about all aspects of the business and industry. But a reporter doesn't have forever—he or she is probably on deadline for not just one but several articles. In that situation, too much information is not a good thing, since it can leave a reporter searching for the best information.
Before an interview, carefully consider: What are the two or three most important points you want to make, and what facts do you have to back them up? While you should let the interview evolve naturally, consider these points your touchstones, and try to repeat them for emphasis. (That said, if a reporter asked you the same question in a slightly different way three or four times, it is not because he or she is stupid; it is because he or she is interested in the idea you expressed but thought the actually quote was weak or muddled.)
It's almost a given that a reporter will end an interview with a variation on the question: Is there anything else you want to say? Don't waste that opportunity. Use the moment to succinctly reinforce the point you consider critical.
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Talking to the Press: Illustrate the Facts with a Good Story
A good interview is an engaging mix of facts and anecdotes to back up your position. But think carefully about what stories to tell and how to convey them to the reporter. A client of mine who is a hospital president in Boston loves to illustrate drab talking points about lowering hospital infection rates with fairly humorous stories about some of the things his quality control staff does to encourage people to do simple things like wash their hands, don sterile gowns, and minimize risk of infection passing from visitors to patients. These stories help sell the concept to broadcast health reporters, because it is something their viewers will find engaging. Just don't get carried away: Avoid saying something outrageous in order to make a good tale seem a little better. You may regret what you said when you (and your employees, investors, and competitors) see it in print.
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Talking to the Press: Soundbites are Good; Aphorisms are Bad
Particularly when you speak with broadcast reporters, you will rarely see more than 8 seconds of your quote appear in the finished segment (though in some cases, you will enjoy several bites at the apple). The best way to convey your point is to brainstorm some succinct phrases in advance, and make sure you deploy them at key points in the interview. It also helps if you change your tone of voice and use hand gestures to emphasize a choice phrase, helping the reporter understand you just said something critical and important for their story.
At the same time, try to avoid what many in PR consider the 'athlete-style' sound bite. Example include: 'We just need to go out there and win the game.' 'We're all playing on the same team.' 'Our opponent is tough.' There is nothing inherently wrong with these phrases, but they are little more than verbal boilerplate, and represent a missed opportunity to get a reporter excited about your interview.
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Talking to the Press: Differentiate Yourself
Though you may think about your company 24-7, reporters (and their readers or viewers) always care about the larger landscape. How do you fit into your industry? How is your business having an impact on society? What is different about what you are doing? One of the things that Apple has done so successfully is consistently distinguish itself from the competition by being the first to offer a certain type of product – iPod, iPhone, iPad. When you think about it, though, many of these products existed before Apple launched its version. But the company successfully played up its products' differences – better design, ease of use, a wide ranging number of applications that can easily be downloaded.
There is no need to mention your competitors by name, but feel free to compare and contrast your product or service with what is already out there on the market. And don't be surprised when the coverage of your company includes references to the competition – it's the reporter's job to think about the industry overall. If you help them place your business in the larger context that, in a way, benefits your company and its story, all the better.
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Talking to the Press: Imperfections are Good
Pimples, warts, and bruises may be a bad thing on a job interview or a first date, but looking at imperfections are part and parcel of news coverage. Your company is not perfect; the reporter will know that, and you should be prepared to talk with candor about your weaknesses.
In some cases, there will be negatives that can't be 'spun' into a positive, so don't even try. In these instances, come up with a clear, concise way to answer a difficult question head on. Any attempt to shy away from a problem will be seen as evasive. Take the opportunity to position yourself as a business leader who recognizes his company's flaws and is taking specific steps to address them.
There are other issues – obstacles overcome, personal foibles that were addressed over time, and lessons learned at the school of hard knocks – that can make for a great news story. Sure, it means you need to air some of your dirty laundry. But the fact of the matter is, entrepreneurs who know how to identify and respond to challenges in a timely and effective manner are widely respected. So be willing to talk through your issues with the press. And remember: Talking about tough times then sets you up with the opportunity to describe how you, your company, and your product is stronger than it was before.
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Talking to the Press: Final Thoughts
There are plenty of businesses that try to stay off the press's radar screen, on the theory that no news is good news. And there are certainly bad articles out there that have the potential to hurt a company. But the benefits of press coverage still frequently outweigh the risks. If you go into an interview knowing a little bit about a reporter, knowing what story you want to tell, being prepared to address challenges, and thinking about what the reporter is trying to achieve (instead of just what the company wants to see in print or on the 5 o'clock news), you should end up with coverage that enhances your business and its reputation.
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