Today, I am pleased to present a guest post from Adam Pagnucco.
One of the most critical tasks for politicians, operatives and staffers is dealing with press. If you do it right, you can make sure that your point of view gets represented fairly and regularly. But if you do it wrong, you will lose opportunities to get your message across. Working with a number of sources who have experience in journalism, I present the following rules for dealing with reporters.
- Reporters are not your friends and they’re not your enemies. They are people who are doing their jobs. That’s it.
- Tell the truth. If you try to spin them, they will know. (You are not their first source!) If you lie to them and they find out, you are done and they just might expose you. They will never regard you as a trustworthy source again.
- Talk like a human being and don’t rely on canned pablum. A source says, “More and more operatives and flaks will only respond with prepared emails. It may feel safer, but it precludes exchanges that can actually be helpful or even enlightening.”
- If you have a problem with a story, point out the issue civilly and supply evidence that you’re right. Everyone makes mistakes, even seasoned pros. Never, ever question their integrity. And don’t go over their heads to their bosses. That’s a sure way to make an enemy.
- In regards to seeking a correction, it’s acceptable to dispute a factual matter but you will have less success in arguing against a reporter’s analysis or interpretation of events. Source: “There’s a distinction between a factual error – which a reporter will want to correct immediately – and, say, a disagreement with a reporter’s analysis, which is a different matter entirely.” Another source: “Any source who insists on a correction for what’s really interpretation will lose the respect of the editor.”
- Deal with multiple reporters and learn their interests. Over time, you will be able to match the right reporter with the right story.
- Until you have a relationship with them, always make clear when you are talking on the record or off the record. Source: “Tell the reporter in advance that you have information that can’t be attached to your name. Negotiate how the source will be attributed. Always inform the reporter that information isn’t on the record BEFORE sharing the information.” Another source: “Always assume that if you haven’t set up a prior arrangement and haven’t said the conversation is off the record, that it isn’t off the record. It is on the record.”
- Understand the limits of reporters’ ability to control the presentation of their story. Editors play in this. They can and do write headlines and change language in the article. One reporter I knew was regularly embarrassed by headlines written by editors. Source: “Reporters can’t promise a specific headline, placement in the paper or really what the story says.”
- If you try to overtly kill a story, it will probably backfire. Source: “Jumping up and down and yelling ‘There’s no story here’ will only encourage the scribe to persevere.”
- Deal in facts whenever possible. Never mischaracterize a rumor as a fact. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”
- When you get a request from a reporter, respond rapidly. Source: “In today’s day and age reporters expect you to get back to them quickly – in hours, not days. Even if you don’t have all the info, it’s best to get back to them with something initially, let them know you’re looking for the information and then once you have it, provide it to them.” Another source: “Please don’t ask ‘When’s your deadline?’ In digital 2016, that’s like asking for the nearest pay phone. Deadline is now. It’s as soon as you can provide whatever is being asked for.”
- Understand that you are one source among many. If you stop talking to a reporter, he or she will just move on to another source – and possibly a source who opposes your agenda and/or you. So get past the article that irked you last week and keep the dialogue going.
- Forget about Friday night surprises. Source: “Folks still believe that they can somehow sneak a negative story under the radar if they put it out late Friday afternoon. This thing called the Interwebs makes it a quaint idea. It only alienates the reporter by screwing up the start to his weekend.”
- Pick your shots. Not everything is newsworthy. Source: “A chief of staff, campaign manager or press secretary who tries to convince a reporter that there’s a story every time his or her boss goes to the bathroom will quickly become background noise and risks being ignored.”
- Never share a tip given to you by a reporter with another reporter. You are risking having a competitor scoop the person who was generous enough to give you that tip. And the person who got scooped will know it was your fault.
- Reporters don’t decide newspaper endorsements. If you get mad at a reporter because his or her publication didn’t endorse you, you are not helping yourself.
- Understand that some reporters talk to each other and to their successors when they leave. Your reputation as a source, good or bad, will make the rounds.
- Have a sense of humor! Reporters may not be at liberty to say what they really think about certain things, but almost all of them appreciate a good joke.
If this all seems like common sense, it should be. But I have seen many people run afoul of these rules. Some politicians believe that reporters can be schmoozed into being “friends.” Then when their “friend” prints an article they disagree with, they feel betrayed. Other politicians distrust the press so much that they speak rarely to them, if at all – thereby creating openings for their competitors. Many politicians perceive bias when a reporter makes a simple mistake. Some believe they can “control” the press when in reality a more achievable goal is to get your voice heard.
Those who break one or more of the above rules probably outnumber the ones who respect them. So be one of the people who adhere to them. If you do, you will have an advantage over the folks who don’t!