What not to say to a reporter

It is flattering for a reporter to ask questions about you and your business. In fact, it can be so flattering that executives can mistake an interview for a friendly chat.

That happened recently to an executive who confessed he was surprised with the amount  of detail included in the article that followed the interview. Did he reveal the details? Yes, but he didn’t intend for them to be used in the story.

It’s only natural that executives want reporters to like them. That doesn’t mean that reporters are your friends. They are trained professionals tasked with writing a good story.

So, where do you draw the line between answering reporters’ questions and not giving away information that should be kept secret? Media training and messaging give you a framework to make the most of media opportunities, and we always highly recommend executives receive training before speaking with reporters.

Even without that training, a couple of simple rules will keep you out of trouble:

  • Nothing is off the record. Even if you are anxious to tell the reporter about a new product development, pending strategic move or developing business alliance, don’t do it unless you can officially divulge the information and are prepared to answer follow up questions about it. Saying it is “off the record” simply gives reporters the ability to confirm the news using other sources. If the material gets published anyway, which does happen, you have little recourse. The information is public and in circulation.
  • No comment is not an option. Think of an accused felon fielding questions from reporters and shooting back “no comment.” He automatically looks guilty. Avoid the appearance of trying to hide information with a kinder, gentler way of saying the same thing. “It is against company policy to provide that information” usually works. The goal here is to maintain the relationship with the reporter without revealing proprietary information.
  • Embargoes are an option. If you want to keep a reporter briefed but are not yet ready for the information to be made public, you can ask the reporter if he will honor an embargo. The embargo is an agreement with the reporter that you provide information and the reporter holds it confidential until a certain date. Get the agreement in writing before revealing information.

The goal of any interaction with the media is to get your story out and maintain a strong relationship with the reporter so you are viewed as a reliable source.

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