When reporters are assigned a story, they need to find reliable sources or “experts” who they can rely upon to explain a complex issue, provide a new perspective, offer commentary to support their facts, or lend credibility to their article.
Reporters may call you directly, particularly if they have worked with you in the past and have found you to be open to the process. If you are accustomed to talking to the media, feel free to call them back directly. However, please also call the Office of Marketing and Communications to share that this interview has taken place.
If you have had little experience talking to reporters or are unsure as to how to respond to a reporter’s request for information, please call the Office of Marketing and Communications at Ext. 5291. This will allow you to talk through some possible questions/answers and to receive some direction before returning the reporter’s call. We can also assist by calling the reporter on your behalf to gather further information as to the inquiry.
Either way, it is important that a reporter’s phone call is returned promptly since members of the media often work on very tight deadlines. How we approach these inquiries is critical to building an ongoing relationship with the media.
Should you answer a call directly from a reporter and find that you are now faced with an interview request that you did not expect, know that you do not have to submit to the interview that very moment. Treat this initial call as an information-gathering opportunity for you. Ask the reporter what the article will cover, when it is due and how you may be of help. Then, if you feel you are ready for the interview, let the reporter know that he or she may begin to ask some questions.
If you would like some time to think about the topic, ask the reporter if you may call them back later in the day or by the next day if the story deadline allows. Ultimately, very few journalists are going to mind if you ask to call back as long as you then follow through with them at the agreed-upon time. Reporters understand that you are assisting them in their work, and are usually as flexible as they can be in working with you.
Once in an interview – one that isn’t being broadcast live – it is perfectly okay to ask to come back to a question that you need some time to think about. You may even ask to call the reporter back if you need to check your facts before sharing them. There is nothing wrong with saying “That’s a very good question. Let me give that some thought and call you back.”
In general, please remember that in agreeing to the interview that you represent the University in all that you say. While most interviews are done over the phone, be mindful that your comments will have widespread impact once they are in print or broadcast over the radio.
Do your best to cultivate a positive working relationship. Keep in mind that reporters can help you to accomplish some of your goals as well, particularly when it comes to getting your message out to the masses. View the interview as an opportunity.
Place yourself in the reporter’s position when thinking about an upcoming interview. Ask yourself “What information would you need to do your job effectively and to write a good story?” That doesn’t mean you do all of the work for them, but anticipating the questions they will ask can help to facilitate the process and you in being better prepared. In addition, being mindful of the audience the reporter is writing for might help you to target your answers. If you aren’t sure of the audience or would like to be able to anticipate the questions more directly, do not be afraid to ask in advance.
Choose a quiet location to return the reporter’s phone call or to meet in person for the interview. This will make it easier to listen to the questions being asked and to compose your thoughts without interruption.
Whenever possible, be sure to have nearby any information that you might need to access during the interview. This will help the interview to run more efficiently, and show that you are prepared. Try as you might, however, occasionally you may need to reference materials that you could not anticipate. That’s okay. You can always offer to call the reporter back or ask if they might want to wait if you believe you can access the material within a short amount of time. You may also ask to skip that particular question until the end of the interview if it is something that can wait.
Be flexible. Do not be so rigid in following a reporter’s line of questioning that you miss the real opportunity in front of you. Listen to each question carefully and ask yourself what message you would most like to convey.
Remember that you have the ability to guide the interview. While it is important to answer the reporter’s questions, you also have the opportunity to share some related information that you would like others to know. This might also take the interview into areas that the reporter might not have considered, providing the opportunity for a more interesting and unique story.
Savor the silence. Guiding the interview also means knowing when you have answered the question. Be complete in what you say, but do not let gaps in the conversation compel you to speak further on a question that you have already answered well. Reporters will often pause to take notes or to compose their next question based on the information you have just shared. Use the momentary silence for a break between questions.
Do not speak to an issue that you feel is out of your realm of expertise. While you may speak in generalities about particular topics, should an interview take a turn that leads to questions you cannot answer, do not hesitate to say just that. As an alternative, you may offer to connect the reporter with a source who can more readily answer these questions or refer them to the Office of Marketing and Communications. It is better to refer the reporter to other sources than to later regret something you have said. If you suggest an individual source, please contact this person to let he or she know a reporter may be calling. Please call the Office of Marketing and Communications also to inform or provide an update on this matter to this office.
Offer to speak again with reporters should they need to clarify any of your responses. This lets them know you are open to reviewing the information you have provided, and offers you a second opportunity to clarify and expand upon anything about which they are uncertain.
Generally, relying on the tips above as well as your own knowledge and expertise will ensure a good interview. But on rare occasions, you may find yourself up against a line of questioning you had not expected. The following list provides some additional guidelines for tackling a challenging situation.
First and foremost, be polite, remain calm and do not become defensive. Try to remind yourself that the reporter is doing a job that on occasion requires some tough questions. However, that does not mean that you have to respond to them. In this situation, it is best to politely say that you do not know the answer (if you actually do not know) and to refer them to the Office of Marketing and Communications for more information.
If you do know the answer to a question being asked, but are concerned about how this might be interpreted publicly, the best policy is to again refer to the Office of Marketing and Communications. Remember, your reaction to a line of questioning is very important – even in situations that are not controversial. If you are perceived as being defensive, the reporter might assume there is more to the story. If you are perceived as calm and conversational even in a tough interview, often this response alone can diffuse the situation.
Do not attempt to avoid or shut the reporter down. This again gives the impression that you are hiding something. Conclude interviews in a polite manner, always offering to connect the reporter to the Office of Marketing and Communications for more information. A reporter’s phone messages should always be returned, but you may rely on the Office of Marketing and Communications to assist you here. If you find yourself in a potentially difficult/uncomfortable situation with the media or do not wish to speak on a particular topic, contact the Office of Marketing and Communications to assist. If you are speaking with the reporter directly, you may tell he or she that this would not be a topic that you would choose to comment on, but the Office of Marketing and Communications should be able to offer some assistance. If the topic is general in nature (not related to any organization or to Lewis specifically), you may in these instances simply tell the reporter that this is not an area of your expertise. Again, the Office of Marketing and Communications should then be contacted to attempt to find another source if possible.
Keep your answers short and simple. When answering difficult questions, it is best in most cases to give answers that are short and to the point. This allows fewer opportunities for misinterpretation, and may actually reduce the length of the interview since reporters often rely on your responses to form their subsequent questions. Again, be polite. How you deliver your response determines the difference between a brief answer and an abrupt one.
Always be honest. Dishonesty will only make matters worse. It is always best to say that you would rather not comment than to bend the truth. Also, don’t speculate or make up an answer that could be incorrect. When in doubt, refrain from comment to allow you time to verify your information, or refer the reporter to the Office of Marketing and Communications for further assistance.
Do not allow a question that is repeated to force you to change your answer. In a difficult interview, reporters may ask you the same question in many different ways in hopes that you will elaborate or answer differently. Do not concern yourself with sounding repetitive. As long as you are courteous, consistency is best. Once you have chosen what you want to say, stay with that message.
Talk about issues, but never about organizations or personalities. In difficult interviews, do not put yourself in a situation where you are commenting about the activities or character of other organizations or individuals. Connect reporters who are looking for this kind of commentary to the Office of Marketing and Communications.
Be direct. If you find that a line of questioning turns out to be about something other than what the reporter described, politely point this out to the reporter. You may then explain that because this was not the interview you had expected, you would need to refer them to another source. Contact the Office of Marketing and Communications to assist.
Know that this is not the norm. Do not let one challenging interview negatively affect your willingness to talk with the media. Consider it a good exercise for future interactions. Most interviews are not confrontational, and can even be enjoyable.
In times of crisis affecting the University, members of the media will be in contact hoping to talk to anyone who will respond. While there may be a natural inclination to begin answering questions about how campus services are being affected or how students are reacting, please refrain from answering these questions. Instead, refer all inquiries from the media to the Office of Marketing and Communications . Parent and student inquiries during a crisis should be directed to the Office of Student Services. The University has a crisis management plan in place, and will respond to crisis-related inquiries following the guidelines outlined in this plan.
Should the information you provide during an interview be misrepresented once the story goes to print or you have other concerns related to the interview, please contact the Office of Marketing and Communications who will work with you to address these issues. Most members of the media work very diligently to accurately report the information they have gathered, but on occasion concerns do arise and the Office of Marketing and Communications takes these concerns seriously.