Monday, March 5, 2012

Three Mistakes to Avoid When Talking to Media

"The prime minister does not wear pyjamas on the back of a horse," a source from UK Prime Minister David Cameron's office told a reporter at The Guardian newspaper. Later in the same article we read the same source revealing also that "The prime minister does not have meetings on horses."  (See David Cameron Horse Saga Ridiculous but Symbolic, The Guardian, 2 March 2012).  Though I wasn't there when this happened I have watched enough interviews to know how this sort of bizarre statement comes about, and this reminded me that there are a few traps that it is easy for well-meaning, intelligent people to fall into. There are quite a few of these traps, especially when you are talking to a very experienced reporter, but here are three of the ones to really watch out for,


1. PRIME MINISTER WEARING PAJAMAS ON HORSE. In any interview situation you have to be careful what you say, staying on message and avoiding the temptation to respond the way you would in a normal conversation. To get someone to say strange things to quote all the journalist needs to do is to ask odd questions like "Was the prime minister wearing pyjamas at the time?".  Wiser, more experienced people might not rise to this bait, but everyone can have off days and if the questions are persistent enough you can easily get annoyed and let slip a snarky reply that no paper can resist printing. The lesson from this is simply to be on your guard and just respond "no" or give an on-message response. Playing back the entire question in this way is exactly what the reporter hoped.

2. BEFORE I GO THERE's ONE OTHER THING...  Even when questions are perfectly reasonable one of the oldest traps in the reporter's play book is the repeated question. Ask the same question often enough and sooner or later some people will forget the official answer and give a more candid answer. Watch for questions that come back, sometimes after many questions on other topics. Be especially careful after the interview is over. Once during an interview in a Rome hotel a local journalist repeated one question several times hoping to catch the subject off message, but he never fell for it. At the end, though, we accompanied the journalist to a waiting taxi. Just as he was closing the taxi door he asked the question one last time -- and still got the official response.

3. DEAR REPORTER, HOW SHOULD I DEAL WITH... Finally, there is a classic mistake that nobody should make but is distressingly common: taking an email enquiry from the media, trying to forward it to a colleague with a "What shall we do with this?" but then sending it back to the reporter by mistake. This is very easy to do; all you need to do is hit REPLY instead of FORWARD. Google made this mistake in Sweden recently and even the Vatican were caught out in a similar mistake, reported in the New York Times in Technology Attack on Vatican Web Site Offers View of Hacker Groups Tactics (see the eighth paragraph). This common mistake is easy to make because of the poor design of email clients, so the best way to avoid it is simply by establishing a strict process. One method is to ban the use of REPLY/FORWARD on mails from the media, using instead cut and paste to share content with colleagues. In addition it is a useful extra precaution to get into the habit of never ever writing anything that could cause damage if it were sent to the wrong person by mistake.

These are just three of the mistakes people can make, but if you can successfully avoid these three common traps you are less likely to get caught out. Better to learn these risks upfront and not wait to learn them the hard way.


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