By Brad Phillips
A local reporter is scheduled to visit your office in a few days to conduct an interview with you.
It’s a critical interview for your company, one that will impact your growth, your reputation, and your bottom line. You prepare for it carefully, huddling with your leadership team and preparing highly memorable media messages that will gain the audience’s attention—and trust. You may even conduct a mock interviewing session to gain comfort when answering challenging questions.
When the interview date arrives, you feel well-prepared. But you forgot one critical fact, one that threatens to undermine all of your efforts. Having a well-trained management team isn’t enough.
Journalists know that many executives and managers have received media training, so they occasionally circumvent the official chain of command in order to speak with a less trained (and more candid) junior staffer. With just a few careless words, those subordinates can undermine all of your media training and carefully plotted communications strategy.
When reporters visit your office, any interaction they have with employees, interns, and receptionists are considered “on the record.” Unless you reach an agreement otherwise, reporters can use their comments—and they will, especially if the quotes your employees utter are more colorful than anything a well-trained manager said.
Therefore, it’s up to you to make sure your staff knows what to do and say when they’re in the presence of reporters. This article will arm you with six specific things to do next time you’re expecting a visit from a journalist.
1. Assign an Escort
Assign an escort whenever journalists visit your office. That will help prevent reporters from “accidentally getting lost” on the way to the restroom, wandering the hallways and striking up a conversation with the wrong person.
If the reporter is visiting your office to interview your Chief Executive Officer, for example, you can assign the CEO’s assistant as the escort. But if that assistant hasn’t received media training and isn’t familiar with your company’s main talking points, you might consider assigning an experienced media representative from your communications department instead.
2. Forge an Agreement with the Reporter
To help prevent the problem of “wandering reporters,” some organizations negotiate the terms of the interview prior to the reporter’s visit. You might consider restricting their access to personnel by asking them to agree to speak only with the previously agreed upon subject(s) of the interview.
You can also negotiate what reporters are allowed to film prior to visiting your company. For example, you might ask them not to shoot employees’ computer screens or papers on their desks.
Although many reporters are happy to comply with such terms, some may bristle at your request and disclose those agreements (or requests for those agreements) to their audience.
3. Notify Your Staff
One week before the reporter visits—and again on the day of the visit—send an email to staff alerting them to the impending visit and reminding them of your media policy.
Your media policy might allow only authorized spokespersons to speak to the press, especially when dealing with a hostile reporter or a particularly challenging subject. In those cases, instruct unauthorized employees who are approached by reporters to say that they’re not the best person to answer their questions and offer to connect them with a member of the communications department.
Although that approach may be best in some circumstances, keep in mind that reporters may note in their stories that your employees seemed “nervous” and refused to speak with them. Plus, as a practical matter, it may be difficult to prevent journalists from speaking to someone they encounter in a hallway or common area, especially if the interaction is being filmed (your on-camera intrusion would be noteworthy and could become part of the story).
4. Brief Staff with Key Messages
In some circumstances, it’s better to allow your staff to answer basic questions about their work and your organization. That’s especially true if the reporter doesn’t typically write hostile stories and the focus of the interview with your company is about an uncontroversial topic.
If you plan on allowing your employees to speak with a reporter who approaches them in a hallway or during a tour of the office, you should prepare basic media guidelines for your staff, and provide them with your key messages so they know what the “company line” is.
It’s also a good idea to remind employees to “stay in their lanes.” It’s okay for engineers to discuss the technical details of your company’s new software, for example, but they should refuse questions that are “outside their lanes,” such as those about global marketing strategy.
5. Remind Them to Avoid the “Seven-Second Stray”
Some reporters put their subjects at ease with a warm smile, friendly demeanor, and conversational style. So if you’re going to allow staff to speak with reporters, remind them to avoid the “seven-second stray.”
The “seven-second stray” occurs when a spokesperson who is “on message” for nine minutes and 53 seconds of a ten-minute interview delivers an “off-message” quote that lasts just a few seconds. Journalists recognize those unplanned moments as newsworthy, and often use them in their news stories. So if your employee shares a wacky anecdote, disparages a competitor, or criticizes a management decision, you can bet it will make its way into the segment.
6. Ask Them to Tidy Up
Instruct your staff to remove any confidential or sensitive papers from their desktops and to avoid displaying sensitive documents on their computer screens. Ask them to remove overtly political messages from their work areas (e.g. posters and bumper stickers) that, in some cases, can endanger an organization’s tax-exempt status. You might even ask them to do a little housekeeping to leave a neat appearance.
In order to add “color” to their stories, good reporters pay attention to interesting details within eyesight or earshot. As an example, I know of one executive who decorated his office rather lavishly, largely at taxpayer expense. When a scandal erupted at his organization, reporters were quick to note the expensive rug and antique chair in his office. So before a journalist visits your office, walk through the entire office space, try to see the workspace through the eyes of a skeptical journalist, and make any necessary adjustments.
About the Author(s)
Brad Phillips is the author of The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and the author of the Mr. Media Training blog.