A Media Training Guide for Lawyers and Other Professionals
Updated: Mar 31, 2022
By Tania Zamorsky
You are an accomplished attorney or executive. In grad school you sailed—unscathed—through all attempts to impose the Socratic method or otherwise to intimidate. Whether from business colleagues or clients, you field questions confidently and unflinchingly. So how hard could it be to talk to a reporter?
Dealing with the media can be a delicate dance. Once you get the hang of it, however, it can even be fun, and certainly beneficial for both parties. But the “moves” involved may not come naturally. The way you write, for example, or conduct yourself in a court or board room, does not directly translate to an interview or press conference setting. The following tips should help you to master this sometimes clunky, but potentially graceful, process.
ACCEPT THAT YOU CANNOT ALWAYS LEAD
You are probably accustomed to a certain level of control and deference, e.g., from your associates. After all, you’ve earned it!
But, while a reporter should certainly be expected to treat you with professional courtesy, their job is not to promote you or to print exactly what you want them to. They don’t work for you and they are not afraid of you. They need you, yes—or at least smart and experienced sources like you—but the relationship needs to be mutually beneficial.
Will you be allowed to review and approve the story in which your quote appears? With a top tier publication, highly unlikely (although you can offer your assistance "if it would be helpful").
Will you get the chance to review your quote for accuracy before it runs? Maybe, if you offer or ask nicely, but this is not something that can always be assumed.
Will the reporter change your quote if you don’t like the way it ultimately comes out? With rare exceptions, not unless you can convince them they’ve actually made a factual error and the quote is therefore inaccurate.
For these reasons and more, dealing with the media can sometimes seem too potentially messy to manage. Is it really worth it? Yes, provided you follow these basic tips.
ADD REAL VALUE
Whether you are proactively offering thought leadership commentary, or you’ve received a call from a reporter about breaking news, you’ve still got to earn that quote. Anyone can provide a staid summary of what’s just happened, e.g., in a Supreme Court decision that’s just come down. You, on the other hand, should put your best foot forward:
Offer an opinion, take a position, with a strong and decisive statement
If possible, be a bit bold, even provocative
Offer a new angle, news hook or developing trend
Explain why your information really matters, the specific impact it could have and to whom
Address some controversy that might exist
This is what people want to write, and read, about. If it is possible for you to do these things (it isn’t always), you will have a better chance of standing out from among the hordes of “experts” offering their insights.
REMEMBER YOUR ULTIMATE AUDIENCE
Possible fun and fame aside, I am assuming that your ultimate aim, in utilizing PR, is business development. Therefore, when crafting your quote or talking points, in addition to addressing the reporter, always keep in mind and speak to the party you are ultimately addressing. Who is the client you wish would walk into the door tomorrow morning to retain you? What issues are keeping them up at night? Perhaps more importantly, what issues aren't keeping them up--but should be? If possible, focus your content here.
WITH ONE EXCEPTION (SEE BELOW), DON’T OVER-REHEARSE
Unlike a choreographed dance, where it’s important to memorize the moves, here you can—indeed should—improvise. And by that I mean only that you should not become wedded to a specific Q&A. Trying to memorize “lines” will only make you sound stiff, and can easily throw you if the reporter goes off script or out of order.
By all means, know you stuff and do think about categorical themes or broader concepts. Write these down, along with perhaps a few basic talking points, to use as a loose guide. But then, just as the best actors do, try to relax and listen. The best interview will be a conversation.
ASSUME YOU ARE ON THE RECORD
On the record is good. Your goal, after all, is ink. If you are not able to discuss something, but a conversation with you could still be valuable to the reporter, then go ahead and ask if they’d be willing to talk to you on background only--but this isn’t something you should assume without getting clear assent, ideally in writing
Only do this with reputable reporters and outlets, or people you trust.
Make sure you both have the same understanding of what “off the record” or “on background” means—e.g., does it mean they can print what you say but not name you as a source?
Don’t ever send an email or launch into a long story that begins, “This is off the record, but...” without waiting for confirmation that indeed it is.
Saying “That was off the record,” after you’ve just said something, doesn’t count. Nor does saying, “I was only joking.”
GET STRAIGHT TO THE POINT
In other contexts, perhaps, some qualification is appropriate. Introductory phrases like, “Well, in my opinion” or “the evidence would seem to show that” seem not only polite, but “safe”—in case you are wrong. After all, all good lawyers present the evidence to support their conclusions, right?
This is far more important on camera than for a written story, but try to override these deeply ingrained habits. When giving quotes, force yourself to make short and declarative statements, containing no extraneous build up, argument or evidence. If somebody needs those things, they can ask you to provide them as a follow up. Your priority is to deliver your quote, to focus on those one or two lines, that tiny and precious piece of real estate that will ideally appear with your name next to it, on the page.
This is another move that is very hard to master. Do not talk about what something, or someone, is not or did not do. (Remember Richard Nixon, and his insistence that he was “not a crook.”) Focus only on what was or is. Repeating back a negatively phrased question, even if only as a build-up to contradicting or discounting it, only keeps the negative portion alive and offers it free advertising, space in what may be the only quote you get.
If faced with a question, therefore, for example one that begins with “Isn’t it true that...?”, just say “No,” without further elaboration or explanation (nothing interesting to quote there). Then move immediately to your affirmative statement about what IS true.
PREPARE AN ANSWER FOR THE QUESTION YOU MOST DON’T WANT TO BE ASKED
There is no need to dread this question, or to go through contortions to make sure the reporter doesn’t pose it. Please don’t make your PR person tell a reporter in advance that they can’t ask a specific question, and try to get them to agree. This rarely works and only calls attention to the very issues you are trying to avoid.
The fact is, you are always free not to answer questions, and the conversation can continue. But an even better technique is to provide a brief prepared statement that you can deliver casually and confidently. Worst case scenario, you can provide a “non-answer answer,” using the “bridging technique” described below. No fuss, no drama. The beat goes on.
YOUR SAFETY-NET: THE “BRIDGE”
You know who your audience is. You know the general points and concepts that you want to convey. Thus armed, while this may seem incredible, it almost doesn’t matter what questions a reporter ultimately asks you. You can still give the answer you had planned to give.
This may also seem rude, or at least likely to annoy. And, as we have all seen from watching talking heads on TV, it can sometimes be taken too far. Of course, if you are completely uncooperative, playing games and refusing to provide a straight answer to any of a reporter’s questions, they would be justified in cutting the interview short and never working with you again. In this mutually beneficial boogie, after all, it is your responsibility, if at all possible, to add real value in exchange for the ad-equivalent publicity they are providing you by including you in their story.
But, if and when you find yourself in a tricky situation, backed up against a wall with a question you don’t want to—or can’t, for various reasons—answer, stop and take a deep breath. Realize that you both have a job to do. It is the reporter’s job to ask the tough questions. But they do not necessarily expect you to answer all of them. And there is a way to find a middle ground that doesn’t bring the conversation or the relationship to an abrupt and resentful halt.
Change the subject by using what is known as a “bridging technique.” It can be as simple as a contemplative pause followed by the word “But,...” or “Actually,...” or “Look,…” and then going straight into the statement you want to give. You can even acknowledge that the question is a good or a tough one before saying, “What I think we really need to focus on is....” or “What I can tell you is…” Many people find it helpful to pick one of these phrases beforehand, so you’ll know straight where to go. The key to bridging is doing it in a friendly and completely casual way, and not sounding nervous or defensive.
If you take this approach, even if you can’t always answer, you can still survive any question that is thrown at you. Essential to a successful “bridge,” however, is to make sure your alternative destination is just as, or almost as interesting. What else of true value can you provide? Try to make sure it’s not solely a self-serving statement or summary. Go back and re-read what makes for a great quote, above.
Often an interviewer will end with the question “anything else?” You may be relieved this interview is over and be preparing your escape, but try to hang on for just a few more minutes. You’ve been trying to convey your message all along, in response to questions that may have had nothing to do with that topic, so here’s your chance. Even if you’ve already tried to make some of your points earlier, make them again or summarize them here.
FOLLOW UP NOTE
You’re almost done. In a few moments, the music will stop playing and you can hit the bar. But this final step is important. As soon as the interview is over, you should send a brief follow up note. Nothing elaborate, just an “It was a pleasure to talk with you, etc.” Then, one last time, “in case helpful,” you should briefly reiterate the main points you wanted to get across in the interview and offer to review any quotes. That ideal, dream quote you’d like to see appear.
Perhaps you were slightly during your call. You’re not sure you expressed yourself in exactly the right way, and you want a “do-over.” In that case, your thank you note reiteration can really be a slight restatement, but without calling any attention to that fact. There’s no guarantee it will work (the reporter has every right to go with what you actually just said on the phone), but if they are pressed for time and you’ve presented him with a beautiful quote that s/he can just copy and drop into the story verbatim, you’ve certainly increased your odds.
Don’t forget to invite the reporter to contact you with any follow up questions, or for future source purposes. Offer to review your quote for accuracy, again, only “if helpful” (you do not have the right to demand this). And if there’s an additional piece or information you promised, include it here.
WHAT IF THE REPORTER GETS IT WRONG?
Hey, sometimes it happens. Reporters are human. So what can you do?
Once the story runs, if you notice something that is actually (hint: this means factually) inaccurate or an error, let the reporter know politely and as quickly as possible, ask them to correct, and give them all of the information they need to quickly and easily do so.
However, if you simply don't like the exact language used, or the tone of the article as it was ultimately written—while you can of course still ask politely, and try to persuasively plead your case—you are, mostly likely, out of luck.
The reporter's job is to investigate and digest all facts and other factors, and then report the story—yes, objectively, but still as they understand and perceive it, based upon their experience and professional judgment. You may not have written the story in exactly the same way, and that's okay, but you still have to respect and accept it.
In these cases, it can be difficult to accept the fact that there is nothing you can do—especially if you are genuinely convinced that the reporter misquoted, or at least partially misunderstood, you. This kind of experience can even make some people feel "burned" by PR, and unwilling to take a risk again—but I hope not. If you are new to PR, and a perfectionist to boot, you may simply be suffering from "source remorse," which is human nature and natural. While the end result may not be perfect, it is usually still mostly good.
Tips for avoiding a negative outcome?
Research the media outlet, and specifically the reporter's previously published articles, before you agree to an interview. Does their coverage seem fair or like "gotcha" journalism?
Try to speak clearly, slowly and in an organized fashion, and in complete sentences; stream of consciousness speech may be lively and entertaining, in person, but can be difficult to follow and report accurately.
See if you can conduct the interview in writing, via email. Most top tier news outlets will want an interview, and to actively report a story, but it never hurts to ask. Especially if you are only contributing a short quote or statement to a broader story (as opposed to being the subject of the entire piece), sending it writing should be just fine, and will give you greater control over the content.
Be as prepared as you can be for the interview, by following all of the other steps, outlined in this article.
As a last resort, try to keep in mind that, while the thing you don't like about the final result may seem huge and glaring to you, odds are other people will either not notice or at least not focus on it for more than a moment before moving on. If the net result of the PR piece is good, consider that a win and move on. Your comfort level—and the quality of your coverage—should improve with each interview you do.
Tania Zamorsky is the founder of Zamo PR & Communications LLC. Contact her at email@example.com.