Reporters don’t hate you: Insights on building healthy relationships

by | Sep 14, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

Some news sources operate under the mistaken assumption that reporters detest them. That’s not necessarily so unless past transactions have led to heightened tensions. If a reporter writes something negative about your company, it’s not personal. It’s a business deal. A healthy attitude on your spokespeople’s part helps lead to healthy media coverage.

Maintain a positive outlook

Their manner plays a large part in determining the success of your media campaign. Enter into the business deal believing that journalists are a bunch of useless hacks and you can expect an unhappy ending. When your team approaches the press as an opportunity, on the other hand, and you are likely to achieve improved results.

Consider what this means not just for your company, but for your career as a communicator:

  • A stellar reputation
  • Realization of your top business and public policy goals
  • Better career advancement opportunities
  • Messages that resonate with the press and public

Positive clips are fine. But never consider them your lodestar. Smart media relations experts realize the points above to be the true goal.

An out of tune orchestra

There are words and phrases guaranteed to irritate the scribe tribe. Should your spokespeople utter any of these discordant terms, the interview is likely to go downhill fast:

  • “No comment.”
  • “Why do you want to know that?”
  • “Are you going to misquote me?”
  • “I don’t have any background data to share.”
  • “That’s a stupid question.”
  • “Call back another time; I’m tied up now.”
  • “That’s gotcha journalism.”

Playing the long game

Establishing a professional relationship with a reporter involves more than a single interaction. Your goal is to develop long-term connections, and your spokespeople have a role to play here. Yes, this is more of a challenge in this time of slumping newsrooms. How can you approach things in today’s climate? First of all, never waste a journalist’s time. Reach out when you have bona fide news to share. For instance, a vaccine showing promise in clinical trials, an update to an unfolding crisis, or a new advocacy position.

It helps when you are able to empathize with the challenges reporters face, especially if you have never toiled in a newsroom (if you are conducting media relations without that essential background, good luck; you are at a severe disadvantage). Get a feel for their deadlines, budget constraints, and unforgiving editors and news directors. Offer them a story that lets them shine before their boss and peers. That increases the odds they will tell your tale the way you want it told.

Stay positive at all times, shunning negative language. Most reporters have favored Q&A techniques. Here’s one example: Putting negative words in your mouth. If they ask, “Why are your products causing harm to consumers?” some naïve news sources might reply, “Our products don’t hurt anybody.” What does the news consumer hear? A negative. Experienced interviewees steer clear of such damaging quotes by rebuffing bad news. They reply with something like, “In fact, our products have the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” then go on to state their message.

Aiming for the same goal

This by no means suggests that every media interview will prove contentious. Far from it. In most cases, the reporter is sincerely attempting to understand your company’s perspective and present it to the public in a fair and logical way. While you want your spokespeople to stay on their toes, unless you find yourself in the midst of a crisis, most interviews should prove straightforward.

Finally, allow me to reinforce something that shouldn’t need to be said. Your spokespeople must understand the need to be honest in any media exchanges. Tell a lie and your reputation is shot. Nothing burns a source faster and more thoroughly than deceit.

True, an interview with a reporter is not the same as a courtroom where you are bound to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Yet two of those principles endure. Whatever you say must portray the facts as best you know them. Moreover, you must speak nothing but the truth, no dissembling or shading allowed. On the other hand, you are not required haul out all the royal jewels. Your advocates’ job is to deliver your message, and not every piece of data is part of that message. If a reporter does not cover a certain area, a source is not bound to open that door. If they do delve into problematic issues, skilled messengers understand the value of acknowledging the question and bridging back to their message. You are not in a courtroom. Stay true to the facts while sticking to your message.

The fact is reporters don’t hate you—as long as you give them no reason. Counsel your spokespeople to keep things positive, forge long-lasting professional relationships with the press, and remain honest and above board. Remember, it’s a business deal.

Ed Barks
Ed Barks works on extended engagements with Fortune 1000, Inc. 500, and association clients that want to refine their message and sharpen their executives’ communications skills. He is the author of three books: Reporters Don’t Hate You: 100+ Amazing Media Relations Strategies, A+ Strategies for C-Suite Communications, and The Truth About Public Speaking.


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