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How to Speak with Reporters

Getting to know the reporters helps avoid misunderstandings and facilitates better coverage. Previous experience with a reporter adds context and background to information being offered.

Always consider conversations with reporters as “on the record,” and everything said during an interview can potentially be used or quoted in the resulting article. Some media outlets require all interviews be entirely available for public release. Others are willing to use information which is not for attribution. Know the expectations before speaking “on background” or discussing any matters that are not available for public release.

At conferences or special meetings where journalists may be in the audience, keep in mind that organizers may subscribe to the Chatham House Rule. When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

Most journalists are familiar with the Chatham House Rule, and it is usually respected if the information being divulged is of a sensitive nature – and without invoking the rule the journalist would not receive it.

Ground Rules of an Interview

Interviews with journalists happen at press conferences, media trips, one-on-one in-person meetings, or over the phone. On technically related issues, it is possible to request questions in advance. Some journalists are also open to having answers to their questions e-mailed to them.

Telephone interviews are typically set up through an organization’s point of contact for journalists – usually the media section of the public affairs office. Share the journalist’s questions or scope with the specialist best qualified to respond, and inform the journalist of the specialist they are interviewing. A communication staffer sitting in can intervene during the interview, if information is not being clearly presented, as his/her presence is for corroboration with the interview subject.

Preparing for Media Interviews

Those well-trained in interview techniques can repeatedly draw the focus of the interview back to core messages without appearing hostile or refusing to answer questions. Training, practice and advance preparation are key. Journalists know how to ask questions that will catch an unprepared person off-guard, and possibly lead them to divulge information that should not be shared.

The interviewee should focus on conveying the key messages in short, clear and pithy quotes that will have a strong likelihood of ending up in the final story. Do not try to sound as if reading from a report by packing in lots of complex ideas in long sentences.

Here are some general tips for media interviews:

  • Be Straightforward. Avoid fancy, pretentious language. It confuses people and cuts the speaker off from the audience.
  • Be Comfortable. The speaker probably has more knowledge on the subject than anyone in the audience.
  • Be Honest. If the speaker does not know the answer to a question, they should admit it. Do not jeopardize their credibility. If they have bad news, say it. But also, provide information about what is being done to address the situation.
  • Be Brief. Try to make the point in 30 seconds. It looks and sounds better if the speaker gets right to the point and avoids technical language.
  • Be Sensitive. Understand the concerns of others. Explain the situation as if it is part of the story. It promotes a friendly and confident image.
  • Be Personal. Personal anecdotes help get across an idea or concept. The audience remembers the key points because of personal insights. Do not be afraid to use humour in the right place.
  • Be Consistent. Keep goals in mind and stick to them. Control and focus all the material.
  • Concentrate. Listen carefully to any questions asked. Say what is meant and mean what is said.
  • Be Energetic. Use gestures, facial expressions and body language to add vitality to words. Keep the speaking voice conversational but imagine that it has a ‘face’ which can show different emotions and expressions.
  • Be Sincere. Speak convincingly. Do not be afraid to pause. Every time someone speaks, they should speak with sincerity.

And some tips for TV interviews:

  • Look directly at the interviewer. Never look at the camera or the TV monitor
  • Wear solid colours, but not black or white
  • Do not wear flashy or shiny fabric
  • Do not wear too much jewelry
  • Sit at the edge of the chair and lean forward. Do not worry about hands, put them wherever you feel most comfortable.

Backgrounders and Direct Interaction

Developing a strong relationship with the news media is important. When you invite journalists to visit your organization, identify engaging stories they can take away. Use the opportunity to have them meet some of your senior staff. You can set ground rules that information divulged is for information only. However, it is safer to assume that anything said is on the record, as journalists must justify the time they allocate and editors demand coverage. In advance, prepare the staff they may meet for the interaction.

If a reporter requests information about a specific subject and a specialist in your organization is designated to respond, request the reporter’s questions beforehand. Some reporters may also be satisfied with emailed answers. To continue to build trust, work toward helping journalists meet their deadlines.

Journalist Briefings

Press briefings can contain a great deal of background and serve as an information gathering session for reporters. They can take the form of a breakfast or luncheon, or even include a tour or field trip to a site. Briefings consolidate efforts and allow several reporters to speak with your experts or representatives at the same time. However, the emphasis here is much less on breaking news than on setting the stage for future stories.

The most effective press briefings combine classroom presentations with exercises and field visits. To be effective, field trips need to be well-organized, and they may attract TV journalists because of their strong visual appeal. This is helpful in ensuring accurate reporting in normal operations and even more so in the event of an incident.

Workshops are independent of government and industry can also be effective in informing stakeholders about nuclear related issues. Local universities or civic groups may be willing sponsors.

Press Releases

Press releases, advisories and alerts needs to be clear, concise and accurate. Journalists should be able to read them quickly for all relevant information. 

A press release may announce news, information about a discovery, a new development, the findings of a study, or an important event. If the information is not newsworthy, it should not be the subject of a press release, as journalists expect them to contain information of significance. Otherwise, the next time you publish a press release it may be disregarded because of unmet expectations.

The format of the press release follows a set of conventions:

  • Include the most important information in the first paragraph under a short headline
  • The time and date of its release (see embargo information below)
  • The date and place of its issue
  • The name of the organization issuing it
  • The name(s) and telephone number(s) (mobile numbers are essential), email addresses of the contact person or persons at the foot of the release (ensure the contact persons whose names are provided are ready and available to take inquiries from journalists who may be seeking clarification)
  • Your organization’s web site
  • Make it one page or less, ideally; use backgrounders or fact sheets to provide more information

Additionally, provide quotes from senior officials or specialists at the organization qualified to address the topic. In some circumstances, a press release can also be embargoed for later release, typically when there is an advantage to providing some journalists advance information.

A media advisory or alert is an announcement to journalists of a forthcoming event, press conference, workshop or briefing. It can also inform journalists about the opening of a conference or a photo opportunity. It is basically a calendar item, providing much less detail than a press release, and intended more for planning purposes. Media advisories should be sent to media contacts and posted on your web site.

Establish a corporate boilerplate ‘signature’ for press releases, advisories and alerts that includes a summary of what the organization does. For example, with such a paragraph:

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the world’s central intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the nuclear field. It works for the safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology, contributing to international peace and security and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Press Conferences

Press conferences bring media representatives together for the announcement of major decisions, studies or additional actions. They work best for events that are expected to garner significant interest by providing experts to answer questions.

To ensure success of a press conference, follow these tips:

  • Ensure there is important and compelling information or breaking news to share with journalists and the public before organizing a press conference
  • Make sure the contact list of journalists is up to date
  • Prepare senior staff for their roles and to answer media questions during the news conference
  • Coordinate with partners to prepare joint statements and other needs, such as video links and technical details

When the decision is reached that a genuinely newsworthy announcement warrants a press conference, the key to success is design and organization. The following are some tips:

  • Arrange the press conference for the optimum time ensuring maximum media coverage – the safest time is mid-morning to meet most deadlines; the exception is if you are working across time zones
  • Prepare supporting documents – the press conference may be held on the heels of the opening of an event at which your participants made statements, and these should be made available
  • Prepare questions and answers for the panelists and have them rehearse their responses in advance
  • Explain why the press conference is being held and circulate copies any related press releases with additional fact sheets and background material
  • Inform journalists as soon as possible, ideally four or five days ahead of the news conference – this may also provide an opportunity for prior reporting;  reminders may be sent 48 hours ahead
  • Inform journalists by phone, email, and social media when the press conference is concerning breaking news
  • Record the names of journalists attending the news conference
  • Try to limit the number of speakers at a press conference to three or four with a moderator
  • Identify all speakers with name plates and open the press conference by identifying them and inviting them to speak for three to five minutes
  • Ensure the moderator invites questions from journalists and requests they identify themselves by name and affiliation
  • Enable the moderator to direct questions to the appropriate speaker
  • Intervene if a question becomes a comment – this deprives other journalists of the chance to pose questions; the moderator is in charge
  • Cut off questions after 30 minutes – or an agreed time
  • Prepare at the end of the press conference for requests from journalists for one-on-one interviews with participants in the news conference

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