PR Skills: 5 Rules for Handling the Media
BY Ron Burley
Reporter on the phone? Use these rules to manage the conversation to minimize damage and maximize benefit.
Your start-up probably doesn't have a high-powered PR firm to handle calls from the media. So, you're on your own when a consumer reporter--like me--shows up or calls about a complaining customer.
It's a tricky situation: These days, the classic "no comment" is often seen as an admission of guilt. On the other hand, anything you say can, and might, be used against you.
Just to make sure it's a fair fight. I'm going to share five musts for managing media inquiries:
1. Stay Calm, Professional & Factual
Talking to a reporter should be like dealing with a cop. Keep it light, but don't try to be funny. While humor often helps to relax a tense situation, joking with a reporter is not always a good idea. That great quip of yours might not seem as clever when quoted out of context.
Remember, the reporter is looking for you to "make news"–which could mean losing your temper or saying something controversial.
2. Don't Say Anything You Don't Want Published
Forget everything you've seen in all of those movies about talking off-the-record with a muckraking reporter. Everything you say could be on the record, even if the reporter says otherwise; terms like "on background" and "off-the-record" are not legally binding.
The reporter does not need your permission to write or print anything you say, so don't share anything you wouldn't want to see on the web.
3. Assume You're Being Recorded
Here's the bad news: 33 states allow for "one-party" taping, where only one person needs to be aware of the recording. Of course, if that person is the reporter, she doesn't need to notify you.
Even if your state requires "two-party" notification, you're not off the hook. An "on-hold" message alerting callers your company may record or monitor calls is permission enough for the reporter to record as well.
4. Gather Data
The reporter isn't the only one who can ask questions. Get as much information as you can about the complaint or issue the reporter is calling about. Listen and take notes, but don't try to argue the merits of the case right away. Let the reporter ask her questions.
Then: Answer what you can, but don't feel the need to respond to everything right away. It is not unreasonable to request a day or two to look into the situation or gather information. That gap between conversation and deadline also gives you an opportunity to deal with, say, a customer complaint. By the time you get back with the reporter, the problem may no longer exist. (See below.)
5. Kill the Story
A couple of years ago, a reader wrote me about a problem with an Oreck vacuum. I'd barely gotten through my introduction before the company's PR person, Laurel Blair, shut me down by saying, "Mr. Burley, Have no fear. If I have to deliver it myself, your reader will get a new vacuum and we'll test it before we leave."
In one sentence, she had vanquished the complaint, given me a non-story, and limited the company's future exposure to the cost of one vacuum.
What she understood was that my column showcased a conflict between company and customer. Without conflict, I no longer had a story. It was brilliant public relations. Actually, I still wrote a story--but only to say how good Laurel was at her job.
RON BURLEY is a nationally recognized consumer advocate and serial entrepreneur. He is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For and senior partner at Brushfire Consulting. @consumerrebel