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A brand marketer's guide to speaking with the press

A brand marketer's guide to speaking with the press Mark Naples

All too often, people with no experience or expertise in speaking with the press find themselves eyeball to eyeball with a business reporter who wants something from them. To hear reporters we work with at trade outlets and major business publications tell it, this happens pretty much every day, in fact.

That's pretty amazing, if you think about it. On the one hand, the opportunity to work as smartly as possible with reporters is a vital one, not just for the possibility of a solid article placement or thoughtful quotation but also for what can be learned from the interaction. After all, who knows more about a given business segment than someone whose sole job it is to cover it intelligently every day?

A brand marketer's guide to speaking with the press

It's not just brand marketers who experience this phenomenon. The fact is that agency professionals and executives working for technology companies or "solution providers" also find themselves in this situation far more often than they should. So understand that the tips in this piece might be useful to everyone who has to speak with the press. There's just a whole lot more at stake for brand marketers. This is in no way intended to supplant or in any way displace a full-on media training. We have far too much respect for the many people who do that at the highest levels, and we work with some of the best. Think of this as a cheat sheet -- something to crib from in the car on your way to the interview.

Remember who you're working for

Mark Naples, Managing Partner, WIT Strategy:

We've worked with hundreds of companies over the years, and I can count on one hand the number of senior executives who were fully honed and ready to speak with top reporters at the onset of our engagement. Amazingly, some of the most successful executives -- some of whom had enjoyed tremendous exits and notoriety -- have been among the least savvy when it came to dealing with reporters.

Whenever I encounter clients who make me worry along these lines, I try to get them thinking about the value exchange in any media setting. It starts with the title notion of this segment -- that the reason reporters are interviewing anyone is for their purposes, not for the client's. If a brand marketer doesn't understand or accept this, the entire interview idiom becomes corrupted and dangerous. Corrupted from the perspective of the reporter, who is highly unlikely to care what the objective of the interviewee is, and dangerous from the perspective of the client, because if the client regards the interview as a chance to spew corporate messaging or speak directly from prepared bullets without context, or basically, do what all too many marketers do in interviews, the client will fail.

Clients might fail by finding themselves left out of an article they were hoping to be included in. Or they might fail by alienating a reporter they wanted to get closer to. Or worst of all, they might step in it with the reporter, and either alienate the reporter or worse -- say something they shouldn't have. That's why the people who help brand marketers with this will always insist on being on the call or in the briefing. The only chance to get something removed from the record is when it is said. It's too late when the client calls an hour later to see if something can be expunged.

If marketers remember throughout that they are participating in an interview at the behest of a reporter and then act accordingly, the chances of a favorable outcome go up substantially -- both short term and long term. We tell clients all the time that while they pay us, of course, we ultimately work for the people who cover their industry and business as a whole. This is why we make sure clients are prepared to add value to a reporter before any interview or briefing occurs. That core idiom -- adding value for the reporter, not about a given company, but about a given industry segment, in the context a reporter seeks -- has created dozens of strong, mutually beneficial relationships over the years.

Set the ground rules first

Rich Cherecwich, Senior Associate, WIT Strategy:

Many brand executives (CEOs, CMOs, general managers) earned their titles by being smart, confident strategists. Yet despite careers full of careful planning and tactical approaches, some executives get intimidated when sitting down with a reporter. They jabber away nervously, only to realize that what they're saying might actually hurt their business or their reputation. They frantically call the reporter asking for certain parts of the conversation struck from the record, undoing any good will they just built.

What many brand executives don't understand is that any time they sit down with a reporter, they have a great deal of control, and they're capable of setting a few ground rules before the conversation begins in earnest.

Don't spend the first 10 minutes detailing every possible scenario. Instead, ask about the story the reporter is working on, and establish whether the conversation will be on the record, off the record, or on background. On the record means the reporter may quote you freely, of course. If you can help with the story but would rather not be quoted, ask the reporter if you can go on background. This means they can use what you say, but can't attribute anything directly to you. Off the record is more hush-hush and can't be published. Brands should go off the record when discussing sensitive business or talking about potential deals and acquisitions. You can go off the record to help reporters confirm facts (the old "yes, but you didn't hear it from me") or point the reporter in a direction that will help with the story. If it helps, picture yourself as Deep Throat in "All The President's Men."

Rules don't have to dictate the entire conversation. If there's a question you're not comfortable sharing for public consumption, ask the reporter if you can go off the record for a moment. The important thing is to always be clear about this each and every time, and to do so before you answer.

While brand executives acting as media sources have a lot of control, it's only up to a certain point. Never go back and ask a reporter to strike something from the record. This scenario happens more than you'd expect, with a brand blithely saying something on the record and then frantically calling their PR agency to make sure that comment isn't published.

Reporters will not backtrack simply because you ask. Once it's on the record, it's on the record. Merely asking a reporter to go back and strike something diminishes the quality and integrity of the conversation, greatly decreasing the chances you'll be called for comment in the future.

The most important thing for executives to remember is to stay relaxed and answer questions thoughtfully. If there's a question and you don't know the answer, it's smarter to admit you don't know than to make up an answer. By all means, take your time! Consider every question and answer thoughtfully. If you're uncomfortable, ask to go off the record. Some reporters might say they don't go off the record. If that's the case, it's OK to not answer. There is no law that says anyone needs to answer all of a reporter's questions.

Connect on a human level

Diane Anderson, Senior Associate, WIT Strategy:

When you are first meeting a writer, this is first and foremost a human interaction. Neither of you is a robot. Rather, you are living breathing human individuals with families, lives, interests, hobbies, and passions.

It's great to know something about the person in advance if possible. If they like baseball, break the ice by talking about the World Series. But you need not know their entire C.V., and the conversation need not be forced. You can meet a complete stranger and find that you connect by talking about the weather or current events. Instead of jumping in on your precious talking points right away, find a way to talk about something other than your company. The more you seem like you have an agenda that you are trying to force on a reporter, the more annoyed that person will be. The more you show interest in what's going on for that person, the more they will relax and trust you. Are they stressed and on deadline? Looking forward to a tropical vacation? Worried about an ailing relative? Then they will be better able to listen and take in your message.

So instead of doing all the talking, ask at least one question so that you get to know this reporter. It is sure to come in handy for future conversations and follow-up emails.

Do your homework (aka know their work)
Try to read a few stories the writer has written so that you can talk about it in a friendly way. You don't have to agree with everything this person wrote, but being able to say one positive thing about it or being able to ask one question -- either about what went into the reporting or what its reception has been -- goes a long way.

Reporters don't work for the big bucks. We've met some who work primarily to get their names in print. They bask in knowing readers have seen their stuff, and they love talking about their work. So this is one way to start the conversation off on a friendly footing.

If the reporter mentions other stories he or she is currently working on, offer your insight into the subject matter and think of those in your network who might be valuable sources to this writer. If you are able to help a writer out -- and not just to promote yourself -- you are suddenly someone this person will respect and think of when the reporter needs a quick take on news. You then get quoted in stories, which helps your brand image.

Let the conversation evolve naturally
Your job isn't to impress them about your company -- yet. Be genuine. Don't lie. Never, ever lie. Don't say you don't have competitors -- a very common mistake made by entrepreneurs. Rather, point out how you differentiate your company.

When you meet for coffee, don't go into the meeting expecting coverage. Rather, approach this as a chance to get to know people and to help them do their jobs better and know the industry more in depth. If you have news, talk about that of course (see "Set the Ground Rules" and know who has the exclusive and do not violate those sacred agreements). When you are talking about your news, be sure to go into how it plays into the broader arena. The more a reporter sees you as an industry expert and not just an expert on your own company, the more likely he or she is to call you back in the future for analysis and perspective.

Dealing with danger

Kendall Allen, Senior Associate, WIT Strategy:

How to get on top of the tough stuff when engaging media
As all industry executives know, engaging the media can meaningfully sway the perception of your business in both positive and negative ways. But what too few executives truly understand is that for briefings, interviews, or meet-and-greets of any stake or consequence, you need an actual game plan and talking points. More troubling still is that these executives also fail to see that talking points don't just cover company facts, point of view, and product features and benefits. You also must know from the get-go exactly how you will speak to the truly tough questions when they come up. This advance knowledge and dexterity on the spot enables you to deflect danger and do yourself and your company no harm in the process.

When it comes to dealing with danger, the key is intentionality -- having a focused, purposeful approach to talking about competition, the state of your business, and any sensitive market issues that could potentially cast you in a poor light. This comes down to tone, a specific way of speaking to each danger point, and the ability to redirect the conversation somewhat. Let's take the area of competition to illustrate how to be intentional in your approach when things get sticky.

One of your competitors has just done a major deal (before your company has been able to close a similar, and in fact larger, contract) and is getting some press for it that is potentially creating the false perception that this company is ahead. Based on the marketplace buzz, the reporter you are meeting is certain to ask you to explain the significance of this deal, and why you were not first. You are not ready to disclose the fact that you are in the process of closing a comparable or superior deal, but you need to position yourself well. What tack should you take when it comes up?

  • Above all, do not disparage the competition.

  • If you are able, quickly position the deal on a factual basis for what it is and move along, without spending a lot of time on these points.

  • Encourage a look at the broader landscape and the context for this deal.

  • Positively state your own market position and value, elaborating on your own competitive virtues, sharing a few indicators that speak for themselves. Make it obvious (again, without disparagement) to the reporter why you are doing just fine and just might be ahead in the game after all. You are planting just the right seed to make the reporter ask tougher questions of your competitors next time.

No matter the nature of the danger -- a competitive issue, a scandal, or an unfavorable trend -- you might have limited time to prepare. It could be an ongoing danger or something you find out the night before you meet the reporter, or even in the cab ride over. In any case, you must have a manner and tone in these situations that is civil, fact-based, and positive, redirecting the conversation and encouraging a closer look. In fact, if you do this right, you are helping this reporter do better and deliver more informed coverage as a journalist. You are now a resource. And that's always what you want.

Make it matter. It's not all about you.

Alex Levy, Partner, WIT Strategy:

Sure, you're excited about your brand and all the nifty things you're doing with it. But why should other marketers care about what you're doing? Don't they have their own brands to pay attention to? A reporter doesn't just want to know what you're most excited about, the reporter wants to hear about things that will resonate with the marketplace. The press wants to be a channel to educate others about marketplace innovation, the new products you've launched, and the trends you've observed. What are you testing? What have you learned? In order to best position your message and maximize awareness and receptivity, you need to relate your message and your product to current marketplace dynamics. To do that, you need to take into account marketplace themes, create context, and move the conversation forward by offering new insights to the market.

What's the best way to do that? Stay up to speed on the stories and trends in the marketplace. Understand what the key customer challenges are for a particular product set or platform. Understand what your competitors have been trying to do to solve the challenges. Read the trades, opinion pieces, and bylines, and follow social media. Most importantly, be current on the conversation.

Here's an example: You launch a new product. You think it's a game changer. What's the customer problem you're trying to solve, and what have you done to solve for it? Why will others relate to and appreciate what you're doing? Always keep the audience -- your competitors, partners, and customers -- in mind when speaking to the reporter.

The more you appreciate the reporter's point of view, the more your message will be relevant and memorable to the marketplace -- and the press.

Talk only when it makes sense (but it probably does more than you think)

Bill Brazell, Partner, WIT Strategy:

As often as not, a brand should avoid talking to the press, especially about its relationships with technology suppliers or other "vendors." Many brands refrain from doing so for competitive reasons -- for example, if you're getting good results from a vendor and talking about those results publicly would tip your competitors off to a technique or partner they might not otherwise know about.

Some brands avoid the press in such situations because they want to keep the peace: They say that if they endorse one vendor, all of their other vendors will ask them to do so too. To avoid disappointing some, they disappoint all. That argument can't avoid sounding weak. Does saying "yes" to one or two vendors magically remove a brand's ability to say "no" to others? Hearing that explanation, one doubts a brand's willpower in other parts of its business.

It's almost always easier and sometimes wiser to say "no" than it is to say "yes." Yet judicial interaction with the press can benefit a brand in many ways.

It makes sense to talk with the press when doing so can help a brand achieve its objectives. However fashionable it is to bash the press, the public knows that a favorable mention by a reporter is usually worth far more than an ad. And if your brand is already paying to advertise -- and even if it's not -- why not stay open to favorable mentions that won't cost a penny?

Even a neutral mention in an article about an innovative business practice associates your brand with innovation. If reporters use your brand to validate a new technique, you won't have to tell people that you're not selling their father's Oldsmobile -- readers will know that you're up to speed and looking ahead.

It doesn't even matter if the innovation is core to your business. Appearing in an article about innovation will do more for your brand than a million ads could ever do. Readers know the difference between stories and ads, and they listen harder when an objective reporter is telling them what's happening.

People rarely go looking for ads. Many times a day, though, they go looking for news. And when they're looking and learning, you want them to find your brand instead of another brand.

One other consideration: If you think you may want a reporter's attention at some future time, the time to lay the groundwork is now. Getting to know reporters as people, helping them get the information they need -- even if you decide to stay out of a particular story -- will pay dividends when you want a little attention of your own. If you don't build that relationship on the reporter's terms first, you'll have nothing to draw on later. Give a little now, and you can start building the kind of relationship that pays off when you need it. That kind of equity doesn't fade as quickly as you might guess. After all, reporters make a living recalling such things. You may reap benefit from it sooner than you think or years down the road.

Mark Naples is managing partner for WIT Strategy.

Rich Cherecwich, Diane Anderson, Kendall Allen, Alex Levy, and Bill Brazell also contributed to this article.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Photo of a news broadcaster" image via Shutterstock.

Mark Naples is partner for WIT Strategy. WIT Strategy is a strategic communications consultancy serving clients who do business on the web in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. WIT Strategy helps these organizations identify and leverage...

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Commenter: Lana McGilvray

2013, April 30

Great points. Great people. Kudos.