Positive media coverage can amplify your voice, inform the public about key issues and build further credibility for your community. It’s a chance to share, in the public square, Reconstructionist values like pluralism and diversity, as well as remind audiences that there’s no one way to do and to be Jewish. At the same time, a negative story can negatively impact your community’s reputation. Here are key tips for speaking with journalists.
Don’t Be Afraid
Reporters are not your enemies. Remember, they are just people, usually working under deadline pressure and constantly criticized for their work, even vilified. You’d be surprised how far a positive comment or email could go in support of their efforts. If you’d like to increase your chance of getting media attention, try cultivating an ongoing, positive relationship with a reporter covering your community. It won’t guarantee coverage, but it may just get your next pitch answered.
Keep Your Guard Up
Even after you’ve built up a relationship with a reporter, keep your guard up. Remain focused, being “on,” and don’t get too comfortable during your interactions. Journalists prioritize their own story goals and not the best interests of your organization. Frame your words as if anything you say could wind up in an article. Avoid going “off the record” or “on background” without consulting a media relations professional. There’s some disagreement about what these terms mean. The Associated Press offers some guidelines. Because there is disagreement, never assume the reporter shares your understanding of these terms.
Nix the Jargon
Don’t use jargon, acronyms or other terms only understood by people in your community or field. If you do, the reporter will paraphrase your words in clearer language and may get it wrong. Avoid one-word answers, but be concise. Use active words and clear language. When possible, provide examples, statistics, anecdotes or examples. The tighter your language, the less room you give the journalist to edit your words and the more control you gain over your own narrative. Also, don’t assume knowledge: Offer to translate and explain Hebrew words and Jewish concepts.
How to do all this? It all comes down to …
Sometimes, media interviews take place with little or no warning, often in response to breaking news. More often, there’s time to prepare. Use that time well. When a reporter requests an interview, ask if they will share some questions or overall topics ahead of time. Do a mock interview with someone you trust, preferably with those with professional communications experience. Go beyond the predictable expectations. Identify the most sensitive, difficult question you could be asked and prepare a response.
Preparation, Part 2: ‘The Heart of the Matter’
Paraphrasing the musician Don Henley: Use your preparation time to identify “the heart of the matter.” An interview is your chance to speak about your agenda and direct the content. Identify one to three main points. If the reporter’s questions don’t provide a clear opening for you to communicate your main points, try these transitions:
- What people should know is …
- What’s most important is …
- I’m not sure about that, but I can tell you …
- Let me just add that ….
You Don’t Have to Share Everything
As Reconstructionist Jews, we value transparency. Yet sometimes, you’ll be pressed to reveal sensitive information that doesn’t belong in the public record. Instead of saying “no comment,” which sounds defensive and hints that you’re hiding something, consider a response like, “That’s not something I can address, but what people should know is … .” If you’re unsure if you should say or reveal something, or you don’t know the answer, tell the reporter you will get back to them. You don’t need to know everything in the moment, and, most of the time, there’s an opportunity for follow-up. Do get back to them and in a timely manner.
Breathe, Think, Slow Down
Media interviews can be stressful. When the mind and body are tense, they engage in a fight, flight or freeze response. These states are enemies of clear thinking and sound communicating. Breathe. Think. Pause to gather your thoughts.
When you’ve finished saying what you want to say, stop speaking and let the reporter ask the next question. There’s nothing wrong with silence in an interview. Both the subject and the reporter need time to pause and think; in fact, reporters need time to take notes, so use that time to your advantage. Also, feel free to ask the reporter if they need anything repeated or clarified.
You’re Allowed to Ask Questions, Too
Your own questions can help you become better informed about the scope of the reporter’s work and help build a rapport. What’s the focus of your piece? Who else have you spoken with? What have you found that’s surprising?
The One Question You Shouldn’t Ask
Can I see or approve the story before it is published? Asking that question will make you look unprofessional and put the reporter on the defensive. It’s fine to ask if the journalist will share your quotes prior to publication, but that is up to the reporter’s discretion and their media outlet’s rules. It’s good practice to offer to be available for fact checking or further questions. And encourage them, no matter about what or when, that if they have any questions at all about your conversation that they can feel free to contact you and ask.
Know the Drill
Don’t be shocked or offended if you spend 45 minutes talking to a reporter and are only quoted once, or even not at all. That could happen for 100 different reasons (an editor made the cut, another source said the same thing in a slightly different way, etc.) The reporter wasn’t wasting your time; you influenced their thinking and how the story was shaped. Likely, you established yourself as a credible source, and your voice and knowledge will be sought again. Media relations is a long game, but if are amenable to their needs, they will call again. After publication, if the reporter made a factual error or misrepresented what you said — and it’s important to set the record straight — point out your concern in an empathetic and respectful matter. If they invited you to call, then call them, as that may be the quickest way to correct the record. If you worked through email or another online source, get back to them that way.