One afternoon a few weeks ago, an email pinged into my inbox alerting me that a client was subject of a news story in southern Ontario. A regional manager had been interviewed for a local paper. He hadn’t said anything wrong, but he also hadn’t made the most of the opportunity. Also, head office hadn’t known about the interview until the news was published, which gave the CEO a small jolt because it was about a potentially sensitive topic.
The episode pointed to a need for our client to have a policy to help it deal with media requests. This particular client liked the fact that their regional team was seizing an opportunity, but it also saw a need to support its spokespeople better and to keep the executive team better informed. After all, media surprises rarely go over well at anyone’s head office.
We run into all kinds of companies in our work. Sometimes we work with companies with long histories and sophisticated media relations policies in place. Larger multinational clients such as Ford and Costco, for example, typically have the maturity and the resources to plan and prepare complex communications initiatives. They’re well past the point of wondering what they need to do. They’re refining their activities from year to year. When a reporter calls in, they are dealt with according to long-established procedures.
Most companies aren’t like that though. Most of our clients come to us with varying degrees of communications expertise. Some ask us to implement their strategies. Others need help just getting started with a single news release or their first communications campaign. In all cases, one of the first questions we have to answer is ‘what to do when a reporter calls?”
Sometimes a company has grown quickly, expanding to new cities and regions. Naturally, they’re focused on the business at hand. The founder CEO who always handled media interviews in the early days grows busier and more distant from the day to day operations. Without oversight, you can easily find yourself running a company where regional managers are giving interviews to local media without much thought about what they should be saying.
We believe that all companies should have a media relations policy that defines what happens when a reporter calls looking for an interview. That policy needs to do more than just define who your company spokesperson should be. It should also detail what your protocol is for handling the call.
Once a company reaches a certain size, it makes sense to delegate communications to an individual or team. Even if your CEO and founder remains your primary spokesperson, there are good reasons to have someone else take the initial call. Your communications person (or agency) can:
- Save your busy CEO time on the phone with the reporter
- Find out what information the reporter wants to know and what kind of questions she may have
- Learn what the reporter’s deadline is
- Prepare a profile of the reporter – who she is, which media outlet she represents, what her reputation is, whether she’s done stories on this kind of thing in the past
- Research pertinent facts to support the interview
- Draft key messages and maybe a couple of sound bites for your spokesperson
- Help your spokesperson rehearse before the cameras and microphones are live
We recommend compiling that information in a media log that can be tracked over time. It will give you a full picture of each media interaction you have. You should also consider jotting down notes and saving a link or copy of the story in the same file.
None of this means you need to stop your regional managers from fielding interviews. On the contrary, we frequently recommend companies allow for local people to handle local interviews. They can frequently speak more knowledgably about local issues than your CEO. Just make sure you support them and give them clear guidelines to follow. That way your company can make the most of every media relations opportunity.