What not to say to a journalist

What not to say to a journalist

So, you followed Scriba’s advice on how to find contact details for a journalist.

You got in touch and – having followed our pointers on how to get their attention – you sparked their interest, via a perfect pitch or a well-written press release.

Go, you! The journalist wants to talk to you to find out a bit more. It’s all good so far – but don’t relax yet – there is still time to mess it up!

Aimlessly waffling – or ‘talking out of your ass’ as one US blogger so succinctly put it – is just one of the ways it could all go wrong for you.

Here are 10 things you should never, ever do in a media interview…

Ask for payment

Unless you are Taylor Swift or Lionel Messi – in which case, your PR team will have sorted this out for you anyway – most news outlets won’t pay for interviews or promotional pictures at all. The big ones may offer money for exclusives, or perhaps to celebrities, but not to the rest of us.

Say: “Can you ring me back in two weeks?”

You’re busy, we know, but you asked for coverage and it’s the height of rudeness to snub an offer of publicity when it’s offered to you. Make time – not just for the interview, but to prepare for it. They won’t call you back, unless you are offering something very, very newsworthy.

Ask: “Can I book a photographer?”

Publications and media outlets who have staff photographers hate it when people say: “I want to book a photographer for my event.” You can request one, or better still just let them know what’s happening when – and, crucially, why you think it could make a good photo opportunity for them.

Demand copy or picture approval

If you are Kim Kardashian, you may be able to make this a condition of the interview – if not, don’t ask. People offering very personal stories to the media are often given a read-through of what’s been written, to make sure they are happy and comfortable with what will appear in print or online, but in general you have to trust the journalist to get it right.

Mention the word ‘advertise’

When you say to a reporter: “I want to advertise my event” their reasonable response might be: “Great! Let me get our sales team to talk to you about paying for some display space, or a banner on our website.” If you have the budget, it’s nice to do that – but your aim is to persuade the journalist that what’s happening is newsworthy and deserving of some editorial column inches.

Suggest anything derogatory about their publication

If no-one you know reads their magazine, it’s not as good as it used to be – or they spelt your name wrong when they last wrote about you – don’t say it. You need the journalist to feel good about their interaction with you and criticising their employer – or indeed, trying to sympathise with them about dwindling circulations – won’t achieve that.

Say: “Just put what it says on my press release”

If your press release is a good one the journalist will probably use some of its content, but that’s up to them. You can’t control what they write. Trying to do so will just annoy them. If you want to be sure of getting your message across, verbatim, take out an advert. Likewise, trying to tell them: “That’s not a story” – it’s not your job to decide whether it is or isn’t.

Say: “That was off the record.”

If you are talking off the record, make this clear from the outset, and get agreement that what you tell them is in confidence – although our advice is, don’t risk it at all. Adding “that was off the record” as an afterthought, when you’ve said something you shouldn’t, certainly does not guarantee that a reporter won’t go ahead and use it.

Tell lies

One sure-fire way to lose a journalist’s trust is to lie to them, or cover something up. Be clear on what you are going to say. Seemingly-harmless ‘white lies’ can backfire, so be careful.

When politicians or chief executives prepare to talk to the media on any tricky or controversial topic, they and their advisers spend hours beforehand rehearsing answers to potential questions, to avoid any kind of slip-up. Alternatively, they may well decline to talk to the media, if they think it won’t go well. If in doubt, seek advice from a PR consultant.

Stray from the path

If you are chatting to a journalist and enjoying the experience, its easy to be led ‘off message’ to potentially more interesting topics – areas that you might be less of an expert in, resulting in you ‘talking out of your ass’, as previously mentioned.

What sounds plausible in casual conversation might look terrible for you when presented more formally, and possibly out of context. Stay focused on the points you want to make – and the reason why you contacted that journalist in the first place.

And finally…         

Do email to say thank you to the journalist when a positive piece of coverage is published. It’s polite and usually much-appreciated, especially as many interviewees don’t bother with this courtesy.

By Jenny