7 April 2015: Having been a journalist for two decades and sitting on the PR side of the fence for the past five years, I’ve learnt that there’s a lot that businesses and journalists can do to communicate with each other more effectively.

Newsroom 7 AprilSo over the next couple of months I’m going to be using Bartlett Communications’ blog and social media platforms to, among other things, offer tips to both journalists and to businesses (especially those without media departments or PR agencies) to improve their communication and work together rather than see each other as automatic opponents, as is often the case.

What journalists will get out of this exercise is more efficient ways of working – especially with businesses and organisations. They will improve their source base, the manner in which they gather information and the manner in which they use it.

What businesses – especially those that do not have PR agencies or the resources for internal reputation management specialists – will hopefully learn is how to manage media communications in the good times and the bad.

The net result should be businesses that are more confident when dealing with the media, the dissemination of more thorough information, better all-round communication and ultimately stories with enhanced sourcing that are more factual and give the public more accurate reports.

This first post contains three points each for journalists and businesses. Both should feel free to post questions or inbox me if they’d like to discuss something in more depth. Advice on these topics is completely free. Journalists are first in this instance; if you’re a business, read on or scroll straight down to your section:

1. For daily and weekly journalists this may seem completely obvious, but get your requests for interviews or information in as early in the day as humanly possible. You are the media and you don’t find yourselves intimidating, so you don’t realise just how much consternation a call from a media organisation can cause in a business. And answering your questions will often involve the 11th hour rescheduling of a good portion of a director’s entire day, so give them some slack. The earlier you get that request in, the better your chances are of them meeting your deadline, especially if they don’t have a specialist media department. Arrange your day around getting your requests in first, then doing whatever else you need to do.

2. Ask permission first, but record your interviews where possible. And the way you ask permission is by saying: “Would you mind if I record our conversation? That way if something is printed/aired that is inaccurate we both have a source to which to refer back. I’m happy to make a copy available to you (if you have the tech ability to do that and your editors don’t mind).” You stand a much better chance of someone saying yes couching it in those terms, than just telling them you’d like to record the conversation. I blame the government for the need for this one. They’ve started a nasty little trend of blaming misquotes when they don’t like something that’s been printed. A recording is your insurance, but then for goodness sake – get it right afterwards!

3. I know there is no spare time in a journalist’s day, but take a minute to think about your approach before you pick up the phone or fire off an email to a business, especially if the information you want is sensitive. The manner in which you formulate that first approach is likely to make the all the difference to the outcome. Don’t rely on the fact that you’re from the biggest Sunday newspaper or the biggest online news site. Quite often the name of an impressive media organisation is intimidating rather than being the great “door-opener” you think it ought to be. The person on the other side needs to trust you and want to answer your questions, and much of that decision will be based on the manner and tone of your initial approach.

I will do a separate posting on how to manage crisis communications, which for businesses without a communications team is key critical and I’d suggest you stick it on a wall somewhere in case you need it one day. But here’s the start of some general tips for dealing with the media, these ones mainly aimed at those companies that haven’t done it before, or do it rarely. Many more will follow in the next few months, including how to approach the media yourself if you have something interesting to say.

1. If you are contacted for a comment on something and you have never dealt with the media before, in the words of the late great Douglas Adams, “Don’t Panic”. Put an internal protocol in place that if you are ever contacted, the switchboard should put the call through to X (the MD, CEO, Marketing Manager, Sales Manager or whoever is designated). Then listen to what the journalist wants and ask them to send you an email with the story outline, relevant questions, their deadline and their contact details. Do not, repeat NOT, answer any questions on the phone immediately if you are unprepared for the interview, no matter how much the journalist may insist that their deadline is NOW! Just calmly repeat that you need the questions in writing, no matter what questions are thrown at you. The answer to EVERY question is “please send that in writing”. This buys you the time to formulate a response that most accurately reflects your business’ position.

2. If certain questions pertain to company finances don’t feel obligated to answer them. If you’re not a listed company your financials are private, unless there’s something specific you want to brag about such as a massive deal just signed or your best annual performance ever. If you don’t want to answer a question, though, don’t ever just write “no comment”. It clearly depends on the nature if the question, but rather write something along the lines of “that information falls within parameters that we are reluctant to reveal to competitors for obvious commercial reasons”.

3. Answer the written questions with as much or as little detail as you feel is necessary under the circumstances. Then get a trusted management colleague to read over the answers with you to check that they are literate, unambiguous and the correct message the business wants to convey to the public about the topic at hand. And if humanly possible, if you want to feature in the story, have a heart and try to do it before the journalist’s deadline, if it’s a reasonable one. Otherwise tell the journalist you’re going to be late and by how long. Daily journalists, especially, are under immense production deadline pressures and if they say they need something by a specific time, 99% of the time it’s true. They also get hell from their editors when their stories fall through at the last minute, so preferably don’t leave them hanging – especially if you’re going to have to deal with them again in future!

Some posts in the Getting Business & Media Talking More Effectively series will focus more on journalists, while others will be aimed at businesses. Some may just be intermittent Daily Tips on Twitter or Facebook, so look out for those too.
– Sam Bartlett

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