There is A Reporter on Line One
Truth be told, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get at least a little bit nervous when speaking to the media. That said, it is definitely not something to shy away from. There are numerous benefits to engaging with media, and the more you do it (like with so many other things) the more comfortable you will be.
Let’s start with why. Why would you want to endure the butterflies in the belly and engage with traditional media? Getting your organization in print, online, on TV, or on the radio can increase community awareness of what you do (which can increase volunteers and donors) and can increase public understanding of the challenges your organization is working to overcome. Being a known organization helps build community trust in your mission and can go a long way towards securing policymaker support for your efforts.
So now that you are (hopefully) willing to engage, how will you do it? Let’s start with the most passive scenario — a reporter calls your organization (We will discuss other ways of engaging with media in future posts.). First things first, make sure all your staff know how to handle media calls. They should not attempt to answer media questions, but rather should take down a message that is then given to the designated organization spokesperson. The person taking the call should take down the reporter’s name, deadline, and the topic they wish to cover. If you are the spokesperson but also happen to be the one who takes the call — take a message anyway! Offer to call back by deadline, but don’t put yourself in the position of having to take a media call on the fly. Take down the information, hang up, and then take a breath.
Take a moment to think about what the reporter wants to speak with you about. Is it something you feel knowledgeable on? Is it a topic that your organization has a clear position on and that your board would approve you speaking about? While it might seem easiest just to opt out, do consider that you want to be able to say yes more than you say no. The reason for this is that regardless of whether you are able to help out with a quote or background information, the reporter is likely already committed to running with the story. If you decline, someone else will fill your place — potentially someone with an opposing view on the matter, or at least someone whose focus will not be the promotion of your organization. If you decide you aren’t the right person to speak on the topic, call back right away with a suggestion of another organization that might be a better source, and thank the reporter for calling.
Assuming you decide the topic is within your scope of work, prepare yourself before moving forward. This process should take an hour at most, but is critical. Google the reporter so you get a sense of what other stories they have done and what slant (if any) their stories tend to take. Look into the particulars of what they want to talk about. If the reporter is seeking your opinion on a particular incident, make sure you find a recent news story that gives you the details. Then jot down a few talking points — statements that are likely to answer the reporter’s questions and that promote your organization’s views. If you can quantify your responses (“There are 2.5 million homeless children in the U.S.” as opposed to “There are lots of homeless children in the U.S.”) you will want to do so, so verify any statistics you might want to have at the ready. Read your talking point statements to yourself a couple of times. Make sure your statements put forward your organization’s stance rather than refute other ideas (“The Arts and Culture Center is vital to our community and is as relevant as ever.” as opposed to “Some people say that the Arts and Culture Center isn’t of value to today’s audiences, but that’s not true.”). Read them allowed to yourself a few times, modifying them as needed so they flow from you with ease.
Now call that reporter back in time for their deadline! Find out right from the start if you are being contacted for background information or whether the reporter intends on using your quotes and responses in a story. If the call is for background, you might still make it into the actual story, but you can expect a longer call and more time spent on the basics of the topic at hand. Either way, focus on weaving in your talking points. If the reporter is seeking background information, and there is certain information you don’t have on hand during the call, offer to provide it as a follow up. You can also offer to send a quote or statement for use in the story. Remember that getting media calls is a good thing, and you want to make sure the reporter is inclined to call you for future stories too.
Keep in mind, especially if the call is for purposes of an actual interview, that what you say will likely be reduced to sound bites. Focus on stating your message rather than on the questions you are asked. You want to be responsive, but most important is that what gets attributed to you reflects the values and positions that you want associated with your organization. So respond, but make sure that with every answer you land on your message (e.g. Reporter: “Do you think he did it?” You: “Our organization doesn’t know all the facts of the situation to make that determination, but what we can say is that there are some easy steps we can all take to make our communities safer from these kinds of threats.”). Also, know that if something is asked that is completely out of your scope or requires information you don’t have, it is completely appropriate to say so (“While we don’t have statistics for our county, we do know that statewide, one out of five people have been determined to have dyslexia.”). Many gracious reporters will also throw you a soft pitch at the end of an interview and ask if there is anything else you want the audience to know. This is a great time to hit any point you haven’t already, restate something that you think that you could have said more eloquently, or remind the audience that these issues and challenges are exactly why your organization exists.
Before you get off the call, make sure you thank the reporter for contacting you and find out when the story will air. You will be amazed by how many people take notice when a story airs and how much recognition your organization gains from these relatively small investments of your time.