It seems like a normal day at the office with nothing out of the ordinary. Until, a message populates in your inbox. You click the email and a rush of nervous excitement washes over you: a reporter would like your comment on a story they are writing! Perhaps you are close to a newsworthy situation, or perhaps you are the expert on a very specific subject matter. Regardless of the reasoning, it seems exhilarating to be asked to speak on such a notable topic, that type of responsibility comes with some level of importance.
But before you label this as a potential start to your “fifteen minutes of fame,” it is important to be extremely aware of what you say, how you say it, and the impact such comments can have not only on the story, but on your company, and on you as an individual. Furthermore, some ground work must be done before you get on the phone or set up the coffee meeting: do you know what the complete article is about? Are you one of many sources? Will you be positioned as the “point” or “counterpoints”? Long story short, there are lots of unknowns that need to be determined before a single word is ever spoken to a reporter.
Anyone who chooses to enter into a news interview should know there are always options when working with the press. Generally speaking, once you have given the go ahead to the interview, there are three separate ways an individual can answer a reporter when they are presented with a question. They can respond with “no comment,” make an “on the record statement,” or an “off the record statement.” This being said, there is also the option to decline an interview all together, if you feel the angle or article focus is not one that provides benefit (your participation within an interview should benefit the company, after all!). While these responses seem decently descriptive, there are nuances that you should be aware of, too.
This is rarely helpful to anyone and is usually positioned in an article as evidence of something to hide or a best irrational fear/recalcitrance. A perfect example of this is when newly hired CEO of Sam’s Club, Rosalind Brewer, was asked if she thought she would’ve been a good fit as Target’s CEO. Brewer answered with a seemingly innocent “No comment,” only to be met with this headline from CNN Monday: “Sam’s Club CEO: ‘No comment’ on Target Job.”
So what should have Brewer’s response been when she was blindsided? Experts recommend you defer back to the core message of your interview, regardless of the question. A response such as, “It would be more appropriate to ask Target who they are interviewing. “My focus is on Sam’s Club and ensuring that the company continues to grow,” would have been a great alternative.
One can also speak on-the-record, for which their name, title and relevant organization will be cited in the article. Be prepared for far less than what you said to make it into print as a quote because the reporter’s job is to corroborate dates, facts and claims, gathering multiple sources for the most significant elements of a story. When you speak on-the-record, literally every single word you say is fair game. So even if your quote is shorter than you would expect, anything you say can go in there … in other words be very careful.
With this in consideration, it is best practice to assume that you are “on the record” even if these direct words have not been spoken (don’t forget the faux pas Uber made when talking with the Buzzfeed writer and assumed he was wouldn’t be quoted.) Trying to back pedal, or sliding in “Don’t quote me on that,” is never a good idea. In fact, it’s often recommended that people stay “on record” for the duration of most interviews, to avoid the confusion of knowing whether they will be quoted (or their sentiment noted) in print.
“Off the Record”
There are specific situations when an off the record conversation is helpful to all — allowing one to correct the record, more accurately align facts, dates or data, but this information does not become the primary source for a story or item within a story. Offering to speak on-background can provide or verify information that reporters need to complete their work, however; don’t go overboard, and get it in writing. When a reporter offers to go “off the record,” one must navigate the nuances of attribution – attribution to the company, but not the individual, attribution as a person familiar with the matter, or not for attribution at all.
“Off the record” is culturally binding, but not legally binding. From a legal standpoint nothing is actually off the record.
Declining the Interview All Together
The old adage that all publicity is good publicity is not necessarily true. The angle the reporter is taking should benefit you…otherwise you should strongly consider declining the interview all together. The publicity isn’t the only thing to consider when deciding to participate in an interview, the timing, whether or not the spokesperson is up for it, and the direction the story is headed can also greatly impact the situation.
Still on the fence on whether or not there is such thing as “bad publicity”? Take a look at the 30 Worst Media Interviews of All Time and see if you’re mind has been changed.
When it comes to talking with reporters, it’s better to be safe, than sorry. Always consider, the main reason to engage reporters is to assist him / her in reporting fair, balanced and accurate news. If a source can help a reporter do any of those things — it is beneficial to engage.
A few extra moments to understand the scope of the article and ask the right questions could save you, and your brand, a lot of clean up or fact correction in the future.