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There you are knee-deep in something business-related at your organization. Maybe you are speaking with an employee about a new process or procedure. Maybe you are speaking with a customer and trying to resolve an issue concerning your company’s services. Whatever it is, you are laser focused on what is front of you. And then, with no warning, your colleague bursts into the room. “You have an urgent phone call,” she says. “A reporter from [your local daily newspaper] is on the line. She has some questions for you about your company’s products and services.” It isn’t clear if these are good questions (“Your business is booming. Why?”) or bad questions (“I’ve received tips about your business from some disappointed customers.”).
What you do and say next could impact the livelihoods of both you and your organization for years to come. So, what do you do?
Speaking to a reporter as soon as one calls you and thanking him or her for the call sends a signal to the reporter that you value his or her time and that you are willing to have a dialog. These gestures are small, but they are an easy way for you to endear yourself to the reporter and build a relationship with him or her. For a number of reasons, such a relationship could benefit you and your organization down the road thanks to the media exposure this relationship could provide the two of you.
But because this call is unexpected and you are not prepared to respond at this very moment, explain that you were in the middle of an urgent matter and will have to get back to the reporter. Reporters are on deadline frequently and have to put off other tasks to finish what they are working on so that it can be submitted for publication. The vast majority of them will be sympathetic to you and will have no issue with you getting back to them, provided that you do the next step.
“What are you working on?”, “What would you like from me or my organization?”, and “When is your deadline?” The reporter’s answers to these three questions will provide you with the information you need to craft a response.
The first answer will guide the substance of your response. It could also provide you and your organization with an early warning that some aspect of your organization is under fire, or could come under fire, by the media, the public, your customers, etc.
The second answer will guide the form of your response and the work necessary to produce that response. Is the reporter looking for a brief response to a legal allegation? Is he or she looking for you to provide detailed answers to a number of questions? Does the reporter want to interview you? These various responses will require differing resources and preparation.
Finally, the third answer will guide your timetable to respond. Does the reporter need a response by close of business today? By later this week? By two weeks from now? This is vital information. And, this kind of question allows you to—again—endear yourself to the reporter and build a relationship by showing that you understand the nature of his or her business and its demands.
Now that you know what the reporter is working on, what they want from you, and how long you have to give it to them, you can now strategize about the response. The nature of the response will dictate how much work you will need to do and whether you will need assistance from particular colleagues or service providers. Anytime a reporter calls, you should make sure to notify any marketing or public relations people you work with, no matter if they are in-house or at an outside firm. They might have information about the reporter that could be helpful, and might have even worked with that reporter previously. In addition, they could help you develop the substance of your response and make sure that your response syncs with your previous branding and marketing efforts.
Moving beyond your marketing/public relations colleagues, the nature of the request will dictate who else you should speak with. Is the reporter investigating an issue that could pose legal problems for you? You should make sure your legal team is aware of the request and seek their input. Does the reporter want to know something about how your organization’s products or services work? You should be sure to involve salespeople, technical staff, or senior executives with knowledge of these details. While “softball” inquiries from reporters are unlikely to require significant input from colleagues, the more significant (and problematic for your organization) the topic the reporter is investigating, the more likely you will need assistance with the response.
With your response team assembled, you can now draft the response. While, again, the nature of the reporter’s inquiry will dictate the substance and form of your response, there are three overarching rules to follow. First, your response should be substantive. “No comment” or “We decline to comment” are invitations to the public, your clients, your employees, and any other key audiences to engage in conjecture and to assume the worst about any alleged wrongdoing on the part of your organization. Second, your response should be truthful. Any attempt to be deceitful will come back to bite you down the road, and will likely cause more problems than if you were upfront about any unflattering information from the get go. Third, your response should have a persuasive purpose. That could mean convincing would-be clients to consider your organization the next time they are in need of its services, or convincing the public that any allegations of wrongdoing are unfounded and false.
Depending on the reporter’s inquiry, you may need to consider who will be the spokesperson for the organization. Should it be the owner or an executive? Should it be someone with technical background about the subject of the inquiry? Should it be a public relations person? A rule of thumb for determining who the spokesperson should be is that the brighter the spotlight, the higher up the spokesperson should be. If there is a profile of the organization in a prominent media outlet, it should be an executive or owner. If the organization is being mentioned in a trade publication for its use of a particular new technology, the spokesperson should be the person at the organization most knowledgeable about that technology.
Whoever the spokesperson is, if the response is provided in real time through an interview, that spokesperson should practice beforehand with a mock interview. This exercise should include mock “curveball” questions from colleagues to simulate a reporter asking questions that move away from the core of the original inquiry and could catch the organization’s representative off-guard.
After finalizing your response to the reporter’s inquiry and practicing the response if necessary, you can respond to the reporter in the manner he or she requested. When you do, you should encourage the reporter to contact you if he or she has any questions or needs any additional information from you above and beyond what you have provided (and what he or she might have originally requested). Be sure to let the reporter know if you will be out of the office or otherwise tied up and unable to respond promptly to additional requests over the next 24 hours or so. This may help prevent any missed opportunities for you or your organization to comment further to the reporter concerning any last-minute developments in his or her reporting.
For most people, an out-of-the-blue inquiry from a reporter can be a terrifying experience. Adding to that sense of terror is the fact that a mishandled inquiry from a reporter can lead to heavy damage to an organization’s reputation and prosperity. A strategic and orderly process for handling a reporter’s inquiry—such as the one I described above—can help minimize that sense of terror and ensure that your organization’s response will be serve the organization’s interests no matter what the nature of the inquiry is.
Wayne Pollock is the founder and managing attorney of Copo Strategies in Philadelphia, a limited scope, boutique law firm helping other attorneys and clients make those clients’ cases in the Court of Public Opinion. He is also a Director at Baretz+Brunelle, a national communications firm that has been named the “Best PR Firm for Law Firms” by The National Law Journal and the New York Law Journal. Contact him at 215-454-2180, or @waynepollock_cs on Twitter.