It became quickly evident to me while working as a news reporter, and later as a spokesperson for an elected official, that attorneys and journalists frequently lock horns. Many lawyers I know, frustrated with inaccurate or misleading news stories, have simply stopped responding to media inquiries altogether.
But dealing with the press is a necessary evil for many attorneys. Your first instinct might be to utter a quick “no comment” and move on. Indeed, a former colleague of mine, a municipal attorney, advised her clients: ‘No comment.’ is a full sentence. Use it and keep walking.
It is, of course, sometimes in your best interest to speak to reporters as a means of advancing your case, protecting your client, educating the populace, and winning in the court of public opinion. And, indeed, I have known my fair share of lawyers who run toward members of the media at any given opportunity. Getting your name in the press, after all, can be good for business.
In my many discussions with attorneys about the role of journalists, there are several common themes, common complaints. Most prevalent are three issues that appear to cause recurring agita. And in all three cases, the problems are based in miscommunication.
First complaint? Reporters who quote a casual remark made when the lawyer, or client, did not realize he or she was on the record. Good reporters are never off duty. If you bump into a reporter at Friday happy hour, or on line at the supermarket, consider yourself on the record. They are reporters. They report what they hear and see. And they are always looking for a story. Perhaps you are already aware of this. But is your assistant? Your client? If your client’s wife sees the friendly, local reporter at a restaurant on a Saturday night, does she realize that her comments are fair game? Plenty of front-page headlines have germinated from a casual remark made when the source assumed the reporter was off-duty.
Next complaint? Misunderstandings about off the record. If you gather ten reporters and ask them to write down their interpretation of “off the record” you are likely to get several different responses. Each reporter might handle OTR information in his or her own way. Remember, a confidential discussion between attorney and client (or between lawyers) is much different than an OTR conversation with a reporter.
If you are compelled to speak off the record, always ask the reporter to define the parameters. Will they tell their editors what you told them? Their publisher? Will they disclose your name or the content to anyone at all? Will they use the information as a blueprint to track down more information? Will they attempt to get another source to confirm the information on the record?
And the third recurring problem is the unprepared reporter who fails to research the topic and, thus, does not fully understand the subject. The resulting news story is sometimes slanted and the quotes misleading. (This is often interpreted as intentional, a way of getting a juicier story, but I think, for the most part, it can be attributed to inexperience reporters with too heavy a workload.)
There are a few ways you can mitigate the problem of ill-prepared reporters—highlight critical portions of paperwork you provide them; lose the technical jargon and acronyms during interviews. Keep in mind they must become instant experts on every issue they cover and most, for certain, did not go to law school. Lastly, avoid the timesaving e-mail interviews. Interacting with the press in person or by phone allows you to read their body language or voice inflection to gauge whether they grasp the finer points.
While researching my book, Master Media Relations, I discovered that the fundamentals of successfully interacting with the media apply to professionals across diverse fields and are useful whether the source is on the offensive or on the defensive. And although attorneys actually have an edge because of their expertise with handling sensitive information, learning the tenets and understanding how journalists’ work can make all the difference in the final news story.
(Editors Note: Special thanks to Author Donna Giancontieri for taking the time to provide her insight. As a practicing attorney, I can vouch for the fact that media coverage of your firm is far more effective than any ad. Interested parties can find her book on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble. For more info you can also visit mastermediarelations.com)