Media Training: When Reporters Lie

I recently worked with a group dealing with an unusual problem. It seems that a local television reporter in town known for his aggressive style of reporting has a nasty habit of lying. Let's call him Jack.

Whenever a sensitive issue arises, Jack requests an interview with a spokesperson for the group. The spokesperson knows that if he doesn't agree to the interview, Jack will ambush him ? in a parking lot, in a grocery store, or outside his home.

So before agreeing to the interview, the spokesperson asks Jack not to broach certain sensitive topics. Jack agrees. With the ground rules in place, the spokesperson consents to do the interview. The interview begins.

But the moment the cameras start rolling, Jack ignores the rules and asks the very questions he promised not to. Jack asks them in a way to make the spokesperson look as bad as possible. The spokesperson is caught off-guard and veers way off message. He looks bad and damages the reputation of his group.

Let's back up for a moment. Jack has every right to refuse conditions being placed on the questions he can ask during an interview. Further, if a spokesperson requests certain conditions, Jack has the right to report that request, whether or not he agrees to them. But if he agrees to those terms in advance and breaks them, well, Jack's just a liar.

Now, let's add one more element to this equation. The media in Jack's town are addicted to tabloid-style news. Sensationalism sells, and local reporters have a nasty habit of making innocuous stories appear as shocking as possible. Their goal is to attract an audience at any cost.

You might think a solution is just to avoid the reporter ? but remember ? Jack will show up when you don't expect him, and if you refuse to talk to him, he will play the videotape of your hand covering the camera for weeks.

So what should you do in the most egregious cases when a reporter lies? The following three tips may be helpful:

1. Get Media Training: Okay, so it may seem a bit self-serving for a media trainer to advocate media training. Still, media training, especially one-on-one training, is made for circumstances like these, and can help a spokesperson answer difficult questions with relative ease.

ABC News Reporter Sam Donaldson had it right when he quipped, "Questions don't do the damage. Only the answers do." Spokespersons shouldn't have to request that certain topics be off-limits. Instead, they should prepare in advance for the most challenging questions. Doing so will help them appear almost delighted that a reporter has finally given them the opportunity to speak about them.

2. Write a Letter to the Station Manager: It's possible that the station manager doesn't know just how much his or her reporters are breaking the rules to get a story. Here, you can use reporter codes of conduct to your advantage. For example, you may write:

In exchange for agreeing to an interview with Jack, several of our spokespersons have requested certain questions be kept off limits. Jack has agreed. Despite those agreements, Jack has consistently broken his word, asking those very questions the moment the camera starts rolling.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says journalists should, "Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises."

In addition, Jack is treating his sources with blatant disrespect, in one case shouting after a senior official and calling her disgusting names. This is a violation of the Poynter Institute's Guiding Principles for the Journalist, which state: "Sources [are] human beings deserving of respect, not merely a means to your journalistic ends."

We are happy to cooperate with your station's future inquiries, even if they are unfavorable to our group. But in exchange for continued access, we request only that you comply with the basic rules of journalistic fairness in the future.

Will this help? Maybe, maybe not. But in desperate circumstances, it might be worth the shot.

3. Prepare a Canned Response: In the most desperate circumstances, you may blacklist a reporter entirely. This piece of heavy artillery should only be pulled out rarely ? in other words, if you're banning more than one reporter per decade, it's probably too many.

In the case of Jack, though, it might be warranted. That doesn't mean you ignore him when he ambushes you. Instead, prepare your spokespersons ? all of them ? for his ambush. They should stop before his camera. They should take his question seriously. And they should issue a response such as:

"Your question deserves a serious answer ? not one delivered in a parking lot. If one of your colleagues would like to schedule an interview with a member of our group, we would be happy to answer his or her questions. Thank you, and we look forward to the opportunity to express our point of view on this matter."

Then, with a small nod or smile, the ambushee should walk with a sense of purpose ? but without a hint of defensiveness ? to his or her destination.

One final point ? if a news organization is determined to write something unfavorable about you, there's little you can do to stop them. But you can control your response ? and a well planned media strategy can help neutralize a negative story.

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.

For more information and to sign up for free monthly media relations and media training e-tips, visit http://www.PhillipsMediaRelations.com

In The News:

Washington Football Team Continues Fumbling Its PR  PR News - For Smart Communicators
PR Sports Photo Flashback: July 6, 2020 | Sports  Plattsburgh Press Republican
PR Assistant Internship London  FashionUnited UK

Television Reporters - Questions to Ask Before Agreeing to an Interview

Prior to a TV interview it is guaranteed the journalist... Read More

Marketing-Minded Financial Planners--Appearing on TV? Tell the World!

It doesn't matter how cruel the reality programs get, there... Read More

Publicizing Your Company

Got a huge need for publicity and a tiny publicity... Read More

Are You Newsworthy?

Non-news professionals often have a hard time understanding why their... Read More

4th Quarter 2003 Publicity = 1st Quarter 2004 Prosperity

As the year starts to wind down, many businesses and... Read More

Writing a Press Release: Inverted Pyramid Style

A term you'll hear in newsrooms, in editing meetings, in... Read More

Publicity: The Best Things In Life Are... FREEE!

One portion of your marketing plan that you probably don't... Read More

For Marketing-Minded Financial Planners, Small Publications Can Have Great Publicity Impact

Just because a publication is small doesn't mean that getting... Read More

Getting Traffic Through Publicity

If your reading this, you must be online and most... Read More

Rise of the Creative Class

The fast changing dynamics of the world economy is forcing... Read More

Underestimating the Power of In-House PR

Do small-business owners always have to rely on large PR... Read More

Community Based Marketing Strategies

As small businesses we have an opportunity and an obligation... Read More

Cutting Down Your Trade Show Budget

Whenever a recession or volatility threatens the economy, companies immediately... Read More

Speaking to the Press

If you get the hang of speaking to the press... Read More

There Is No Such Thing as Competition

A wise friend of mine has often said, "There is... Read More

Why PR is an Engine for Economic Growth

Business, non-profit and association managers committing their public relations resources... Read More

How to Write Press Releases That Work And Get Free Publicity

One study found that as many as 90% of the... Read More

How to Get More Mileage Out of Your Media Coverage

Maybe it played for Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams,"... Read More

Get Outsiders on Your Side

Especially good advice for business, non-profit and association managers whose... Read More

All You Need to Know About Press Release Writing and Distribution

Before you even think about writing a press release, there... Read More

Is The Traditional Press Review Still A Business Tool Of The Future?

Press reviews are a common and basic feature for surveying... Read More

Permanent Press: Using Press Releases to Keep Your Company in the News

When is your best advertisement not an advertisement? When it's... Read More

How Managers Hurt Their PR Results

Business, non-profit or association managers hurt their own public relations... Read More

The Ultimate PR Edge: Getting Reporters To Open Your E-Mails

You know that getting publicity is vital to the health... Read More

Public Relations Primer, Part II: Five Dos

1) Package your story. Two critical elements will help you... Read More