Handling Media Interviews Like a King (or Queen!)
Have you ever felt ambushed by a reporter who says they want to interview you about one topic but then they begin sneaking in questions about another topic? I am sure it has happened to a few public relations professionals no matter their years of experience.
If you are the district spokesperson, or just won the pot ‘o gold because everyone else is attending a professional learning event, responding to a reporter’s request can feel like a daunting task. For those who are new to the school public relations industry, having tips to help navigate those pesky switch-a-roo’s will help you gain a reporter’s respect and potentially build a relationship that will benefit you later. Here are some tips to see your way through:
1. Be available. When a reporter is on deadline, they like to go to a trusted source. If you are available during their time of urgency, they might be inclined to return the favor when you need to reach out at a later date.
2. Ask for an email interview. If you are under deadline and duty calls, ask the reporter to send the questions via email. Let them know you want to respond but you may not have time for a face-to-face by the time they need it. They will understand because oftentimes they are covering multiple stories themselves. When responding via email, you can still provide them the needed information. Don’t forget to tell the reporter when you will have responses back and stick to that time.
3. Know the hot topics. If you are a district employee, stay abreast of what’s going on at the school level. Some reporters troll social media for juicy stories...i.e. parent posts photos of kids being bullied but doesn't quite tell the entire story in their post and the post receives traction from shares so the reporter picks it up. Or the district may be re-zoning and they got a 'tip' from a parent (or teacher, eek!). Or a teacher posted a 'racy' photo online or was seen in a bar drinking on the weekend and someone took photos of them and posted online (eek, again!) Have a response prepared and stick to it.
4. Ask what the article or broadcast is about. My mom used to say ‘a closed mouth don’t get fed’. It took me about a year to get the confidence to ask a reporter what they wanted to talk about. Who knew they would be so accommodating? I specifically ask the topic. If I get push-back that gives me a red flag. I tell the reporter that I want to be prepared with data or the latest update so I can answer their questions when they arrive. If they insist on changing topics, I dig in my arsenal of 'deferrment'...
5. Deferrment. If it's a question I am uncomfortable with or I just really don't know the answer, I defer to comments along the lines of:
I don't want to speculate on what could happen...we are in talks on that and I'll let you know the outcome.
We are still in talks on that, I'll let you know when we have a definitive answer.
That is a personnel matter so I am not at liberty to discuss that at this time.
Due to FERPA laws, I cannot give student information or likeness (if a video tape is requested).
This is the first time I am hearing of that so let me do a little research and get you a definitive answer.
I'm not exactly sure that's the case, so give me a few hours to find out a little more and I will get back with you on that.
No matter the situation that transpires, always show compassion, care, and concern - even if the reporter goes off-topic and you know a reporter tried to slip ‘a mickey’ question in on you.
The most important element is to build trust. They have a job to do and so do you. It’s better if the working relationship is respected on both sides of the news story.