Sunday, March 05, 2006

lesson: working with the press (part 1)

I hesitate to characterize it as a "fear", for doing so immediately activates the pride of the reader who, in a fit of pique, proceeds to reject any suggestion that any aspect of work elicits fear, and stops reading.

But between us kids, let's be honest. There is a wide-spread fear of the press among software product marketing types, who experience an involuntary transverse colon-clenching sensation of abject misery when it comes to dealing with the press in any of their many incarnations.

"With good reason!" you cry. You say you know of someone who committed a CLE (career-limiting error) in an interview? Someone who "thought they were off the record" and shot their mouth off? Someone who talked when they should have shut up? Or worse - far worse - someone who had an opportunity to talk and elected to say nothing?

To you, gentle reader, all I can offer is this: knowing how to interact with the press is a skill that will serve you well. But much like scuba diving, driving fast, spelunking, sky diving, bungee jumping, getting married, playing with pit cobras, operating a cherry picker, bull fighting, alligator wrestling, manufacturing fireworks (and so on) it can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing, but quite rewarding once you do.

So as we begin our discussion on working with the press, I offer you the following for your consideration. I'm taking it as read that you are articulate, succinct, well-coached and aware of your objective, that you know what is and isn't covered under NDAs (long story), and that you're talking to someone you actually want to talk to:

  1. Remember you are always on the record. Unless you're a White House staffer muttering from behind a big Corinthian column with a sack over your head, please remember that what you say will be reported with your name attached to it. It is not your business to be providing anonymous color commentary. So don't. Failure to obey this single directive has resulted in more misery than I can name for people I like, respect, and miss working with.
  2. Always bring a buddy. In much the same way you should never wander off into the woods or the ocean alone, you must bring someone with you when you do an interview. Ideally, you will have a member of your PR staff (agency or internal) whose job it is to handle the logistics. If it's a phone interview, you can have a few other folks on your side of the call to help with facts or cheer. I've found Instant Messaging is a great way for people to communicate "off-line" during a call. Another reason to bring a buddy is plausible denyability in case you're quoted as saying something you didn't. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, whooee.
  3. The Reporter is not your Confessor (a.k.a. The Reporter Did Not Give You Sodium Pentathol). There is a difference between what you think in your heart of hearts and what you should say out loud. If you think your corporate direction is wrong, that your boss is an ass, that you (and you alone) know the right way things should be run, go dig a hole and whisper into it. Similarly, just because the reporter asks you a question does not mean you have to answer it. Be aware that the reporter (being a good reporter, clever and full of guile) will ask you the same question in a bunch of different ways. If you shouldn't answer the first one, don't answer the second, third, and so on.
  4. Serve Up Sound Bites. Reporters are busy people. They work on deadlines that make lesser folks (like me) cry for mercy. They are also gifted with very accurate BS meters. They know when hey are being fed a canned marketing line which is devoid of meaning, such as "We're the market leader!" and "This will change the world!" and "Not even Google has this!". So come ready with some pithy, meaningful summary statements that encapsulate your message in a way that would look good in writing. Anything that helps the reporter to grok your message quickly will, in some cases, see print.

There is a lot more than this, but on a Sunday afternoon, I think it's enough to start. Next time I'll share some guidelines for how to manage your personal relationship with the press. Hint: you need one.

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