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Learn why and how personal contacts and meetings with media representatives can boost your effectiveness, and how to generate such contact opportunities.

 

  • What do we mean by meeting the media?

  • Why should you meet the media?

  • How do you handle meeting the media?

  • How do you handle television and radio appearances?

  • How do you hold a media event?

Presidential Press Secretaries have a tough job.They have to explain to the media why the President just issued that outrageous statement, or why he took the action he did, or why he opposes a bill that has both popular and Congressional support.  Most press secretaries have personal and/or working relationships of some sort – some positive, some negative – with everyone in the room at a press conference. They have usually worked as reporters, broadcasters, producers, and/or editors for major media outlets, and have perhaps even been on the other side of the microphone as White House correspondents. Now they face questioning, sometimes downright hostile, from people who were once, and may still be, their friends.

Press secretaries have to know how to handle themselves in the glare of the media.  When they make mistakes or come across badly – sound angry, seem to be attacking the reporters who ask difficult questions, give the impression that obviously important issues aren’t very important at all – they are held accountable by the harsh light of public exposure through television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet. (YouTube is particularly good at catching every embarrassing detail of a press secretary’s blunder or ignorance.)

You’ll probably never have to face media scrutiny as exacting as that aimed at Presidential press secretaries, but you might well be interviewed on the phone or in person about your issue or about matters relating to your organizatio and its work. Are you ready for prime time?

What do we mean by meeting the media?

Ok, you've set up your advocacy goals and printed up media packets. You're ready to call the city reporter from your hometown paper. Or maybe your secretary just came in to tell you a reporter is waiting to interview you on Line #1. Now's your big chance to get some serious publicity, right?

We've discussed the advantages of using news stories to turn the focus on your issues. Yet although you can inform journalists with a fax, press release, or media packet, meeting with reporters face to face or over the phone is the best way to present your news to those in charge of spreading it.

That’s what we mean by meeting the media – meeting media representatives personally, face to face, if possible. If you already know them reasonably well, you can use your familiarity with them to help you in getting your points across.  If you know them barely or not at all, meeting in person can help you establish a relationship that will grow over time.

Furthermore, if the meeting is a broadcast interview, or even a simple information session, it gives you the opportunity to present yourself and your issue to the public in the way you want to. You can communicate a certain image of your organization (or change it), by the way you dress and speak, that you couldn't convey on paper or over the phone.

As we’ve already mentioned, meeting the media could take place in person or over the phone (although the former is generally better if you can arrange it.)  It could also take a number of different forms:

  • Print interviews: You might be interviewed for a newspaper, magazine, newsletter, or other print publication.
  • Broadcast interviews: You might be interviewed for a radio, TV, or streamed Internet broadcast.
  • Participation in a broadcast program: You might be a guest on a radio or TV talk show, where you might face a situation similar to an interview and/or respond to questions from a studio or call-in audience. In other possibilities, you might be asked to be a panelist on a show that focuses on your issue, or be appear on a news program as an expert in your field.
  • Information calls or meetings: You might call a media outlet or call or meet with a particular reporter to explain a current situation or to alert them to a breaking story concerning your issue.
  • Background:  A print or broadcast reporter might contact you, because of your reputation as a knowledgeable and accurate source, to get general background information for a story about your issue, or to get specific information for a more narrowly focused story about a particular situation.
  • Media events: You might schedule a press conference to get your point across to the media, either when a particular situation regarding your issue arises (a legislative vote, a funding crisis, a new report), or when you’re launching an initiative.  In another possibilities, you might organize some form of public demonstration with the express purpose of attracting media coverage or invite the media to tour a facility (a school, a housiong project) or neighborhood in order to highlight the realities of your issue.

Why should you meet the media?

  • You control the continuity and consistency of your presentation and perspective
  • You offer a convenient source to the reporter for future stories on related issues
  • You build a stronger connection with the reporter through direct personal contact
  • You have the advantage, in face to face meetings or video broadcasts, of letting your body language and facial expressions help emphasize important points and tell your story
  • You have a chance to practice thinking and speaking well under pressure - the more you do it, the better you get
  • You present yourself as a reliable, knowledgeable source for your organization so other members can concentrate on different kinds of work
  • You can control how much and what kind of information the media receives about your issues

Whether it means appearing in the paper or magazine, in a blog or other Internet-based medium, on radio, or on television, the prospect of giving an interview can make anyone's hair stand on end. That's understandable, since you're not asked to be the center of attention everyday. But you can beat a nervous stomach with thorough preparations and lots of practice.

How do you handle meeting the media?

Given that you’re likely to meet the media eventually, if you haven’t already done so, here are some things to think about to make that meeting go smoothly.  We’ll look separately at different forms of meetings:

Interviews

Before an interview

One way of preparing for an interview is to practice speaking out loud. Call up a buddy to come over to watch you speak. Or practice your public presentation in the mirror. If you know what you look like while you speak, you might not be so nervous during the real thing. Here are some more tips for preparing to face the press:

  • Prepare and practice, the answers to questions you think a reporter might ask you.
  • Develop "sound bites" - short, memorable phrases that are easily quotable (in seconds or less) that explain your basic message.
  • Make sure the interviewer has plenty of background information. Ideally, your organization will have sent the reporter a media package before the interview.
  • If this is a video interview, and visual aids will help make the point, bring them along. For example, a group in San Francisco, in an attempt to protest the marketing of Budweiser products to children, held up a Spuds McKenzie doll with a tag that read, "Ages three and up." Boy, did they make their point!

During an interview

Nonverbal language can be an important part of interviewing. The following are important things to remember.

  • Make good eye contact with the reporter or the person to whom you are talking
  • Be as natural as possible. People will be more impressed by a sincere manner than by a polished response.
  • Look alert
  • For a television interview, be aware of what your body language suggests.  Remember that the camera might zoom in on you even when someone else is talking.
  • If you like a reporter's question or someone's response, show your enthusiasm
  • Smile. Nothing makes you look worse on TV than an extremely serious or – worse – angry or resentful manner.  The more relaxed and pleasant you seem, the more believable you are.

Some tips about speaking:

  • Speak clearly but don't raise your voice.
  • Be discreet. Even if you make comments "off the record" or in confidence, you are still talking to a reporter.  He’s likely to use anything he hears, regardless of whatever restrictions you’ve tried to place on it.
  • If you appear with a member of the opposition (for a joint interview or debate ) don't ask him questions; it simply gives him more press time that could be yours.
  • Be polite, but not passive.  If your opponent is dominating the conversation, firmly but politely interrupt.
  • Avoid arguing with other guests who don't agree with you, BUT be assertive. If you become angry at something a reporter or someone else says during an interview, show your anger after the interview or in the opinion pages.
  • It may not be unreasonable, however, to voice your anger calmly and straightforwardly. “I resent your statement that my opposition to the war makes me unpatriotic.  Democracy embraces the right to disagree with the government.” is a statement very different from “You swine!  How dare you insult me like that!”  Audiences respond to reasonable objections if they make sense, but are repelled by violent anger.
  • Avoid using technical jargon that may not be understood by your audience.
  • If you are uncomfortable with a question, don't feel pressured to answer it. You don't have to answer personal or hypothetical questions. Instead, bring the focus back to your message and answer the question that should have been asked. Use stand-by responses such as "I don't think that's a relevant question"; or "What's more important to me is..." for inappropriate questions.
  • Stay focused on the topic you want to discuss. Don't get sidetracked, especially if you are interviewed with your opponents. At the same time, don’t obviously avoid a loaded question, so that it looks like you’re not dealing with the issues that it raises.  Either answer it briefly, and then turn the answer back to your main point, or show how it relates to your main point in the first place.
  • Use statistics that are meaningful to your audience. They should refer to familiar situations and conditions that mambers of the audience can identify with, and may have experienced themselves.
  • Show your sense of humor. Humor disarms people – just make sure that you use it in appropriate places.  (Don’t make jokes that are insulting to any group, for example, or that make light of tragic situations.)
  • As the interview winds down, summarize what you've said to the reporter or audience.

After an interview

Thank the reporter for his or her time and offer to answer questions that may come up later.

  • Offer to be available so the reporter can double check your quotes with you.
  • If you don't like what a reporter wrote about your organization, keep it to yourself unless you can back up a contrary opinion with fact.
  • If a reporter misrepresents the facts, ask for a correction in print or on the air.
  • Always be professional and courteous with reporters (even when you don't like them!).
  • Regardless of the circumstances of your interview -- over the phone, in person, over the radio, on television -- if you can anticipate the questions the media want answered and know exactly what you want to tell them (i.e., push your advocacy goals), then your interview experience can be exciting and effective!

Information calls or meetings

  • Make sure you know, by name, the reporter you want to speak to.  Reporters do take “cold calls” – calls from people with whom they’ve had no contact or connection – but they’re far less likely to pay attention to them if the caller hasn’t taken the time to find out who the right person is to deal with his issue.
  • Before you call, find out when the reporter you want to speak with is most likely to be available
  • Explain your credentials and your organization. For example, say, "I am calling on behalf of Tobacco Free Youth, a local organization with over 300 members. "
  • Ask the journalist if she is available to talk. If not, find out when she will be free. You will undoubtedly get better reception if you make your pitch after the work is finished for the day's issue or program.
  • Be confident and assertive, but not obnoxious. Reporters are human: they respond better to courtesy and pleasantness than to rudeness.
  • Give your pitch: Explain what the suggested story is and why it is significant
  • Get to the point quickly and give the reporter the important facts first
  • Tell the reporter where she can verify this information and collect more
  • Keep your responses simple and to the point
  • Make your main points two or three times, using the sound bites you've prepared

Background

  • If you're nervous or unprepared, ask the reporter when you can call back (or schedule another time), so you can collect your thoughts and notes
  • Answer the questions as best you can. Even if you don't like the angle, the reporter may contact you for help later and you may have another opportunity.
  • Make sure you have your facts straight.  Don’t speculate, and don’t quote any statistics or make any statements you can’t back up, unless you’re clearly giving an opinion.
  • Be prepared to suggest your own news angle to the reporter, or sidebars to help further your advocacy goals
  • If you don't like the reporter's approach, try to reframe the issue
  • Use words and phrases that help frame or reframe the issues
  • If you don't know the answer, help the reporter find someone who does

Media events

We should never underestimate the power of one interview carried out by a single reporter. But media coverage from several different sources all at once dramatically raises your current level of publicity and the possibility for future and more varied coverage. One way to attract attention from a wide range of news sources is to stage a media event.

A media event is a meeting with many representations.

These events are almost always:

  • Short, if they’re specifically meant to transmit information or a point of view, as a press conference is. If they’re designed instead to dramatize the issue or make a point, they may be much longer – a demonstration, a tour of an urban neighborhood, a piece of street theater – and you may want to try to get as much coverage as possible.
  • Simple. The same rule applies here as directly above. A piece of street theater, for instance, may not be simple at all – but it may be great television, or make for a great newspaper story.
  • Visual
  • Designed to highlight your initiatives and issues
  • Held in plenty of time for reporters to make deadline
  • Your story should ideally be big enough to draw in journalists from all kinds of media

The most common and easiest media event is a press conference, which is basically an interview held with a roomful of reporters. Instead of talking to a reporter one-on-one, you will be addressing journalists from many publications, and possibly many types of news media.

For a press conference or other media event you will need:

  • A very significant story
  • A lot of media people in attendance
  • A media coordinator, at least for the event itself.  If you’re engaged in a long-term advocacy effort, or in constant advocacy for your issue or population, your organization should designate someone specifically to deal with the media.
  • Plenty of time to set up your event and alert the media in advance.
  • Invitations for your event, sent to members of the media, if it’s a press conference, tour, appearance by a celebrity, or something similar.  If it’s some sort of public demonstration, the media have to know when and where it’s happening.
  • A facility big enough to hold the people who will attend, with plenty of chairs and adequate accessibility.  If the event is an outdoor demonstration of some sort or a tour, your media coordinator should work with photographers, cameramen, and sound people to make sure they have room to work, that they can set up in the right places to catch the action you want to highlight, and that they can get what they need.
  • A spokesperson who is articulate, comfortable with the issues, and can interact effectively with the media.
  • A spokesperson whose persona or 'look' fits well with the image you want to project.
  • A story and presentation which makes for good television images and printed pictures.
  • A clear idea of the story you want to tell and what you want your story to achieve your media advocacy goals should drive your efforts.
  • If you can add some drama to the event, something surprising and fresh to enhance your story, do it. But remember, what makes your story important is the story, not the special effects.

How do you handle television and radio appearances?

Before the show

  • Find out the format of the program. That is, is it a call-in radio or TV show, where you answer questions from viewers or listeners, a panel discussion, or will you simply be interviewed?
  • What is the point of view of the program? Will the host be friendly or hostile to your viewpoint? Will he be informed or uninformed on your issue?
  • How does the program typically approach its topics? With a lot of drama; with humor or sarcasm; as an adversarial discussion; or as serious, "facts only" presentations?
  • Who will make the program's opening statement or introductions?
  • Who will be the host, or moderator? Will she ask questions aggressively; will she let everyone speak his mind at once; or will she step in and control how long each person gets to speak?
  • Who else will appear on the show?
  • How much time will you have? Will you be able to fit your main themes and points within the allotted time?  (Media Training Worldwide suggests that you should state your main points in the first 30 seconds, and that everything else you say should simply support those points.)
  • How does your knowledge and presentation of an issue stack up beside that of other guests? Will it be a fair exchange or a lopsided discussion?
  • Watch or listen to a show's broadcast before your appearance. You can find the answers to many of the above questions simply by paying attention to what goes on during the show.
  • Think about your target audience: Who will be watching or listening? How will you communicate the ideas and attitudes that will gain their support? How will you get them excited about your issue, and ready to act?

If you don't feel comfortable with the answers to many of these questions, reconsider appearing on the show. How well can you promote your advocacy goals on this program; are you the best person to do it; and is it worth it?

If you decide you are the best person, make sure that before you appear on the program to rehearse with a colleague – on videotape, if possible, so you can watch yourself and see how you come across. The more comfortable you feel answering questions and expressing your views, the more effective you'll be on the air.

For a television interview, wear solid colors (brights for women and more subdued colors for men). Avoid wearing black, white, bright red, or shiny fabrics.

If you're nervous before going on the air, ask if you can have a few minutes alone on the set, in the studio, or in a quiet place to prepare. Then jump right in!

During the show

  • If you can't fit everything in, stick with a few of the most important ideas you want to impress upon the audience. Try to repeat them at least once.
  • Take along notecards to help you remember what you want to say, but put them away before you walk onto the set.  You’ll look foolish referring to notes on screen.  You’ll do much better to rehearse beforehand, so you’ll know exactly what you want to communicate.
  • Speak clearly and confidently to your listeners and viewers. And remember that point about TV dulling your voice – speak up and be animated, but not overly so.
  • Don't be afraid to use hand gestures or to vary your voice tone (not to be confused with your voice volume!) to emphasize your point.
  • Don't be afraid to ask the moderator or a guest to repeat a question. his strategy buys you more time while you think of a good answer.
  • You don't need to give a perfect interview to get your message across If you cough during an interview or stumble over a few words, those who are watching or listening won't remember or care if your message is compelling.
  • Encourage audience involvement with your cause. Give a phone number or address where listeners or viewers can write for further information, or to get involved directly.
  • Shake hands with the host and any other guests at the end of the show.

After the show

  • If it’s true, mention that you’d love to be invited back (but only if you feel you did reasonably well.)
  • Get a tape of the show (or make one yourself) and watch or listen to it critically. This is an excellent teaching tool for improving your performance next time.  (Media Training Worldwide suggests that you watch with the sound off to get a sense of how you actually appear on TV. The sound will distract you from the image.)
  • If you did well, you might want to make multiple copies of the tape of the show to hand around to other producers or hosts, or to use as examples for other advocates.

In Summary

Meeting the media doesn’t have to be difficult.  It can, in fact, be fun, and can add a powerful tool to your advocacy toolbelt.  If you follow the guidelines in this section and remember that the media people you’re dealing with are only human beings, it’s likely that you can become a great media spokesperson for your issue.

Contributor 
Aimee Whitman

Online Resources

Communications & Advocacy Toolkit has six different resources for fielding questions, creating talking points, et cetera. 

Meeting the Media - A Guide to Encountering the Media is a resource with information about interviews with the media.

Meeting the Media - Tips for Successful Interviews is an article from Colorado State University’s School of Journalism and Technical Communication.

Media How-Tos: Building Strong Relationships is a site created by The Center for Media Justice, and it has links to information on writing press releases and developing press kits.

Media Advocacy Guide is a guide provided by the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists.  

Media Advocacy Manual. This manual provided by the American Public Health Association offers information on connecting with the media through newspapers, internet, radio, television, and magazines.

PTA - Working with the Media is a comprehensive resource and downloadable PDF with information about building and maintaining relationships with the media. 

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994 ). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Goldman, K., & Zasloff, K. (1994, December). Tools of the trade: Media do's and don'ts. SOPHE News & Views, 6-7.

National Cancer Institute. (1988). Media strategies for smoking control: Guidelines. Bethesda, MD: Author.

Pertschuk, M., & Wilbur, P. (1991). Media advocacy: Reframing public debate. Washington, DC: The Benton Foundation.

Phillips, B. (2012). The media training bible: 101 things you absolutely, positively have to know before your next interview. SpeakGood Press. This book is a comprehensive guide to executing a successful media interview, written by the president of Phillips Media Relations – a media communications training firm.

Stewart, S. (2003). Media training 101: A guide to meeting the press. Wiley, 1st edition. This book provides practical information for dealing with the media in any situation.

Wallack, L., Dorfman, L., Jerniagan, D., & Themba, M. (1993). Media advocacy and public health: Power for prevention. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Walker, T.(2008). Media training A-Z. Media Training Worldwide, 5th edition. Walker provides a guide to controlling your image, message, and sound bites.