how to handle journalists

How to handle journalists in a crisis situation

Media relations 101

Handling journalists is the bread and butter of a PR agency, even with the widening of the scope of PR’s role, media management and journalist engagement remain core activities.

Nowhere is this skill more needed, than when a crisis hits. Having the tools and the knowledge to properly manage the media in a situation which could have potentially massive ramifications for an individual or a business, is therefore a vital asset to any organisation.

Calling on our decades of PR and crisis comms expertise, here we explain the process of dealing with media during a crisis. We explore the tactics behind how to manage reporters, journalists and media outlets. How to use media relations to ensure your subject line

Off and On the Record

A crucial distinction to make when dealing with media is the definitions between on and off the record. 1.

Quite simply, On the record means the information can be used with no caveats, quoting a specific source or sources by name. Whereas off the record means that any information cannot be used for publication or broadcast.

Getting to grips of what is and can be off, or on, the record is very important and is something that will usually be factored into a strong media training programme. Knowing what to put on the record and what to keep off is key when handling media stories which may involve sensitive information

Off the record discussions prior to interviews can also be a good means of winning round more difficult journalists. If you’re in a crisis interview situation, perhaps with a more combative reporter, a frank and of the record discussion which helps to frame a crisis situation and place events in context could help to shape the interview into your favour.

Knowing your landscape

Journalists all have their own niches, and when you’re prepping for an interview either in print or broadcast, knowing who you’re engaging with is really important.

It’s important to take some time to research the reporter or journalist you’re scheduled to meet, take a look at some of their latest bylines – don’t just read one article. If it’s a broadcast journalist, clue up on the latest interviews, and examine their line of questioning, particularly noting the more difficult questions they ask.

This kind of preparation, which again comes as part of the media training process, will set you in good stead come the actual interview. You may not be able to prepare for every conceivable eventuality, but you can have a good clear picture of what directions a journalist might try to take an interview.

Former Treasury Minster Chloe Smith learned this lesson when coming up against notorious hardball Jeremy Paxman, in a 2012 interview around fuel duty.

Key messages

Prepping your key messages prior to an interview is an essential part of the process. Not only will it give you clarity of thought, but it will help you steer interviews in the direction that you want to take them.

Having your key messages and specific stock responses planned and prepped is a huge help in dealing with interviews and interviewers that have the potential to go awry. Sometimes, journalists will have an agenda that they’re trying to follow, a line of questioning that they seem set on following.

Firstly, being press-ganged by a journalist into an unexpected line of enquiry is rather uncommon, it’s more likely that questions and themes will be, in some way at least, discussed and pre-determined beforehand. Preparation will always ensure you’re fully equipped to handle the task at hand.

If a situation should arise where a journalist or reporter wants to brooch difficult subjects or story ideas, how you respond has its consequences.

With your key messages prepped and ready, it’s important to stick to them. They are in place for a reason. Look no further than former BP CEO Tony Hayward and his ‘I just want my life back’ comment.

In the wake of a major disaster which claimed the lives of 11 people and caused the largest oil spill in US history. Haywards’ comments were ill-judged and despite his subsequent apologies, Haywards’ professional reputation was left in tatters.

Respond or not respond… that is the question

In a crisis scenario, particularly if there is the potential for media coverage, one of the most brand-damaging statements any media outlet can issue is that someone has ‘refused to comment.’

Regardless of the situation, from a personal and business brand perspective it is always best to comment and respond to issues which affect your business. In many ways, this is a golden rule of crisis comms.

This might be in the form of issuing statements, press releases, blog posts or maybe even an interview with a journalist. But to bury your head in the sand and ignore an issue can be more damaging that fronting up and meeting a crisis scenario head-on.

A prime example of this was in 2019, with Sky News choosing to ’empty chair‘ James Cleverly on live television.

A measured response 

The manner in which you respond is also just as crucial. Take the tie to form a measured response to a situation, because a hasty and off-the-cuff remark can often cause more damage to an existing issue.

This happened with Tinder in 2015 when the dating app used its Twitter platform to publicly chastise Vanity Fair journalist Nancy Jo Sales following an article which negatively portrayed app-based dating culture.

Media Training

Not everyone is a natural in front of the camera, it may come naturally to some but for most people, it requires practice and dedication.

With training, opportunities can be practiced and workshopped. Live interviews with TV reporters can be recreated and rehearsed. Difficult questions and how to respond to them prepped and managed and teams can work together to identify specific issues and pain points and get ahead of them

Speaking in front of the camera, or to journalists is something that can and should be practiced and honed. Because even the most experienced orators can find themselves having a bad day, as Natalie Benett, former leader of the Green Party found out during a very unfortunate live interview in 2015

Body Language

The words we speak are only one part of the story we tell.

Particularly when it comes to television interviews, body language plays a major part in an interviewee is perceived.

Strong and positive body language conveys an air of authority, honesty and authenticity. With an understanding of your body language, and how to use to add gravity to a message, you can get your point across much more effectively.

Experienced journalists can also pick up on subtle body language queues. If you’re uncomfortable under a line of questioning, and it shows through your body language, then that journalist may opt connote in that ilk, in search of a story or a soundbite.

When offering an answer to a question, your body language can also betray consumer confidence in the words you’re actually speaking.

For instance, indirect eye contact can be perceived in many ways. Looking downwards or side to side can portray either guilt or suspicion, whereas looking up can often convey an image of contempt or boredom.

The iconic Frost Nixon interview is a prime example of this. While Nixon’s words are as measured, his body language and physical responses act as tells, which David Frost capitalises upon and results in perhaps some of the most iconic and damning statements ever caught on camera.

In summary

When dealing with journalists during a crisis; delicacy, tact and diplomacy are invaluable traits. It also takes a detailed understanding of how the media works as a whole, as well as how specific media titles like to operate, to make the most of these scenarios.

So, having an experienced PR professional at your side during these moments can prove invaluable. Be it helping to shape a story idea, managing journalists and more, your PR agency can help steer you through tricky media waters while looking ahead to the next story.

Get in touch to find out how we can create powerful media management and crisis communications strategies for your business.