Oct 6, 2007

Dealing with the media

One of my clients had an unfortunate experience with the media. This client has a great story to tell, and hopefully someday you can hear him. Since I don't have his permission to give out his name, let's call him Mike.

He was offered an interview with a local TV station to talk about his battle to survive after a terrible accident.

During the interview, the reporter kept probing to get more details about Mike's life, but Mike kept pushing back. Eventually, Mike asked the reporter to turn off the camera and then he proceeded to tell him that he did not want certain parts of his life revealed on camera. Mike explained to the reporter that some of the details of his life were unknown to people that were close to him, and he didn't want them to hear about it on TV before hearing it from him.

The reporter listened to him and told him, "I understand. Trust me." Mike did, and the interview went on.

The reporter kept telling Mike how inspirational he was and what a great story this made and how priviledged he felt about meeting someone like him.

That same evening, on the news, there was Mike's story. Mike was ecstatic and all excited. The story lasted about 2 minutes, 30 seconds. The first minute was fine. But the last 90 seconds focused on the parts of his life that Mike had specifically requested be kept off TV.

Mike was furious and he called the TV station, but the damage had been done. Furthermore, the reporter made sure that Mike understood that he was doing his job, and that he had done a mighty fine job at that.

A few lessons to learn from this situation:

  • Don't trust a reporter: Sorry to say, but reporters will report what sells. What sells, in today's market, are sensationalist stories. Bad news sells. If a reporter says, "Trust me, it's only between you and me'' that's not enough. Always request that what you say is off the record. Most reporters are honest enough to respect an order to be off the record but you need to verify all the time. Do so by answering every question with, "This is off the record, right?"

  • Don't say what you don't want to see or hear on the air: when you are interviewed, make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to hear on the radio or the TV. If you do, you can always refuse to answer questions on the basis that it isn't something you wish to discuss. It will make the reporter angry, but it prevents any unwelcomed surprises.

  • Get expectations clear from the start: before you agree to an interview, make sure you are clear on the objectives of the interview. Make sure you know what angle is pursued and make sure the reporter sticks to it. You never have to agree to an interview if you don't agree with the premise. And even if you agree to the interview, you don't have to answer any question if you aren't interested in doing so.

  • Stay on message: if you are being interviewed, it is probably because the reporters want an opinion from you or want you to comment on something specific. Decide ahead of time what you want to say, and stay on message. Repeat your message as often as needed and make sure every answer you give supports that message.

Mike's situation is unfortunate but he isn't the first nor the last person to be "taken to the cleaners" by unscrupulous reporters. Remember what happened to Newt Gingrich's mother when she was interviewed by Connie Chung.

Chung asked her what Gingrich (President Bill Clinton's biggest critic at the time) thought of Hillary Clinton. Gingrich's mother refused to answer so Chung asked her to "just whisper it to me, just between you and me." Gingrich's mother, thinking it was not going to air, replied: "He thinks she's a bitch." Of course, the comment aired.

The next time you are asked to be interviewed, make sure you do your homework beforehand and don't agree to anything that will shed a negative light on you.

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