Five media relations tips for when reporters call

Here’s a new twist on the expression, “You can’t really know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes,” and it goes like this: “You can’t really know a reporter’s frustration until you’ve tried in vain to reach multiple media relations people while on deadline.” I’ve recently walked that mile and it triggered unpleasant flashbacks.

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I cut my teeth as a reporter before  transitioning to corporate communications more than 15 years ago. I loved being a reporter. It was hard, but rewarding work. However, the thing I categorically hated about that job was dealing with public relations and media relations people. Too many were condescending, acting as if their organizations were entitled to coverage in our paper. It made an impression on me, and shaped the way I responded to journalists when I became a media relations manager.

Recently, I pulled my reporter hat back on to write for a publication that needed an article about higher education. The specs required that I speak to at least eight university presidents or provosts and special program directors, all on short deadline. Unfortunately, the flashbacks started when I was met by answering machines, unreturned calls, suspicion and “let me check with [someone else].” I clearly explained I was writing for the official publication of a higher education organization of which that their university was a member – and the intent was to shine a favorable light on their programs!

I eventually extracted the information I needed and got the story written just ahead of deadline, but remembered in the process why so many reporters I knew popped Tums like SweetTarts. I previous wrote about media and public relations that work and explained how businesses, especially small businesses, can garner press exposure. Here are five tips for how to respond when the press contacts you.

1. Realize most stories reporters write are positive

There is a small percentage of agenda-driven reporters, but realize the majority are simply trying to find fresh and reliable sources who can offer new perspectives. Organizations too often view reporters with suspicion and the reaction – especially among leadership – is to default to “no comment.” More often than not this becomes a missed opportunity for positive exposure, especially for small businesses who could benefit from the positive – and free – exposure.

2. Respond to phone messages in a timely manner

I admit, a strategy I used as media relations manager was to allow calls to go into voice mail if I didn’t recognize the number. However, I’d immediately listen to the message and call back within 15 minutes, even if it was a question I wasn’t prepared to answer. The point was to let the reporter know I received the message. I’d then use it as an opportunity to find out deadlines, the context of the story and why he or she decided to include us. Responding in a timely manner gives you more time if you need it to formulate an answer. It also helps you develop a reputation among reporters as being considerate and helpful.

3. Make sources available in a timely manner

Reporters want to talk to the experts, leaders, influencers, business owners and those who have a direct connection to the story’s subject. Media and public relations people usually are not the ones in whom they are interested. It is, however the job of the person talking to the reporter to connect reporters and sources in a timely manner. Sometimes that means amping up the urgency to convince a sourse he or she needs to drop what they are doing and respond quickly. It is becoming an advocate for the reporter, but realistically it is being an advocate for the organization.

4. Prepare sources before they speak

It was shocking to me in writing the story for this publication how few presidents, provosts and center directors were unprepared for the interview they were about to do with me, as in they really didn’t have any idea why they were talking to me until I explained what I needed. Fortunately I was a friendly advocating their programs. Job No. 2 (behind getting sources to talk) is to make sure they are briefed on the topic and what a reporter needs. Help sources present well, otherwise it is a missed opportunity – or worse.

5. Follow up with reporters before their deadlines

This is a courtesy check to make sure sources actually did contact reporters and that reporters don’t need any additional information. This again communicates helpfulness, consideration and builds a relationship, which helps put the “relations” part back into media and public relations.

Walking in someone else’s shoes often helps you better understand how you can help them, which can directly and indirectly help your organization; or more succinctly stated: “Treat reporters as you’d want to be treated.”

How about you, any stories to share about how you connect with the media or respond when they call? 


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