12 most damaging things to say to a journalist

Don’t tell a reporter you want to approve what he writes, or that you have an exclusive when you plan to give the story to other reporters. You’ll only hurt your credibility.

Press and media coverage can greatly boost your profile and help build your reputation, credibility and trust.

Getting the attention of journalists is one thing, but speaking to them is another. Get it wrong and you could put your reputation and that of your business at risk.

Here are 12 things you shouldn’t say to a journalist:

1. “I want to approve what you write.”

Of course you want a favorable write up from a journalist. Who wouldn’t? Unfortunately the journalist’s loyalty isn’t to you, but to her editor, readers, viewers and listeners. The third party endorsement of the press is incredibly powerful, but remember that while you control the information you give to a journalist, you cannot control what she does with it. You should never demand to see copy or feel like it is your right to see and approve it.

2. “Off the record.”

People often misunderstand the phrase “off the record.” Many people assume it means the journalist can’t identify you as a source. While the journalist may not name you, he can still make reference to your gender, job role and who you work for. A combination of those things could make you recognizable.

3. “No comment.”

Quite simply, “no comment” smacks of guilt and suggests you have something to hide. There are many ways to handle a tricky media interview, but “no comment” is not one of them. As well as suggesting guilt, “no comment” also encourages the journalist to probe further until he gets an answer he’s satisfied with.

4. A lie

There is no excuse for lying, even if you’re under extreme pressure in an interview. If you don’t know the answer to a question, there is no problem with admitting that and saying you will come back with an answer. The key is to follow up and provide the information you promised.

If you lie, you start to dig yourself into a hole of which it becomes very difficult to get out. And once the lie is exposed, you could easily find your reputation in tatters.

5. “This is the story you should write.”

A journalist isn’t interested in you or your business, but she is interested in news and ideas that will inform, educate and engage her audience. Reporters are always interested in the human interest aspect in any story, and how their audiences will be affected by the news. Telling a journalist what she should write is a surefire way to ensure she ignores all of your future pitches.

6. “I have an exclusive” when you plan to give the story to other journalists

Nothing gets a journalist more excited than an exclusive. It’s something that can catapult a career.

If you have a story, you want to get as much coverage for it as possible, but you have to decide whether you’ll issue it to all of your relevant contacts or offer it as an exclusive to just one journalist. There are pros and cons to both, but never offer the story as an exclusive to several journalists at the same time. You might get coverage in the short term, but it’s not worth it if it will damage future relationships beyond repair.

7. A promise that you can’t deliver

Whether a journalist contacted you out of the blue or in response to a pitch, it’s important not to get carried away. Journalists work on tight timeframes, and you can build good working relationships with them by being reliable and trustworthy. That means you deliver on your promises. Don’t overpromise, and be clear on deadlines if you need to come back to the journalist with more information.

8. That you’ll take the story to a competitor

There are many reasons why a journalist may not use your story: timing, the space available in the publication, weak appeal, lack of human interest or similar stories that have already been covered. That’s just the way it goes. You should never take a refusal personally or try to force the issue. You are better off trying to find out why the story doesn’t appeal so you can make future approaches stronger.

9. “I can’t do an interview.”

If a journalist approaches you out of the blue for an interview, it’s your job to decide whether doing the interview would be helpful for you and your business.

If, however, you issued a press release, you need to make yourself available for interviews. It’s frustrating for a journalist to be presented with a story opportunity only to find that key contacts are unavailable. There is no excuse for that.

10. “It’s all in the press release. Just read that.”

Journalists are under extreme pressure, and may only scan a few lines of a press release before wanting to speak to you to get the full story. It’s important not to make any assumptions about what they have read or understand. The goal of a press release is to get a journalist to contact you. Make the most of it when he does.

11. “You shouldn’t have written that about my company.”

It can be distressing if the press doesn’t represent you or your business fairly. You need to take emotion out of the situation, however, and ask yourself whether the facts reported are accurate and whether you were clear when you spoke to the journalist. There is room for recompense and complaining if you feel the press didn’t treat you well and damaged your reputation, but think carefully before progressing with this. You don’t want to build a reputation as someone who complains all the time.

12. Anything you say to a journalist when the official chat or interview is over

Once the interview is finished and the journalist switches off the recorder or microphone, you still need to stay in interview mode. Never assume the interview is over until you are safely back at your desk or home. The journalist can report what you say after the interview, and there have been many high-profile instances where reputations were damaged as a result. Don’t fall into that trap.

Make the most of speaking to journalists, but avoid these common pitfalls to keep your reputation intact and build long-lasting relationships.

What tips would you share for speaking to journalists? [Download the free guide, “What Journalists Want” for many more proven tips and tactics.]

This article is republished with permission, courtesy of 12 Most.


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