The 12 Worst Mistakes in Working With the Media

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The web has changed the way we work with journalists. Many media interviews take place in email exchanges. Reporters conduct interviews on Skype. The news cycle is now 24/7.

Follow the Rules

But, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The basic rules of working with a reporter on a story haven’t changed at all. If you make any of these mistakes, you’re not likely to have a positive story written about you or your company.

So what are the worst mistakes you can make?

  1. Not researching the reporter. It is so easy now to do a search for a reporter and find all his recent stories. It’s inexcusable to call a reporter and ask, “What do you cover?” Yet, it still happens. Robert Pear has been the long-time health reporter for The New York Times. We entered his name into Google search and it took us directly to the archive of his articles at the Times with a link to his email. You can do the same for the reporters who cover your industry.
  2. Assuming the reporter knows your industry. Robert Pear may be the exception these days as a reporter with a single beat. Media outlets are cutting staffs and more reporters are being called on to cover new industries. A reporter assigned to write a story about your industry may be a “newbie” to the beat. Take that into account when you’re talking to her. Send information in advance and test for her understanding during the interview.
  3. Not knowing your own industry. If you’re new to your company, or working at an agency on several accounts, you may not know as much as you should either. Before you pitch a reporter, or sit for an interview, be sure you’ve learned everything you need to know. In researching a reporter, you can anticipate the kinds of questions that will be asked. Be prepared.
  4. Saying nothing. You can’t get away with generalities. Stating, “Our company has a great future” is meaningless. You’re rambling on at the macro level when the reporter is looking for hard news. Back up your general statements with specific facts and industry trends that confirm your projection.
  5. Talking too much. Establish in advance how long the interview will last. You’ll find with experience that 20 minutes is about right to get in your key messages and satisfy the reporter’s information needs. If you talk for too long you may lose focus and make mistakes.
  6. Not framing the interview. This is a step that many people either don’t know how to do or forget. At the beginning of an interview, you can say something like, “I just want to be sure we’re on the same page. I’ll be talking about (subject). I want to be certain I’m covering what you need in the time we have.” At the end of the interview, ask: “Have you gotten the information you need?”
  7. Not getting in your key messages. This is most likely caused by lack of preparation. You need to develop your two-to-three key message points and be sure to weave them in at appropriate times during the interview. Summarize them at the end of the meeting. “To recap…”
  8. Being late to an interview. This is a killer. It’s rude and you may never get another chance to make a positive first impression. True story: at New York Fashion Week, where all the top editors gather to review next season’s collections, an agency scheduled a meeting for a client with the top editor of a fashion magazine. The editor arrived on time and then cooled her heels for 20 minutes waiting for the fashion designer who never arrived. The editor was insulted, stormed out and that designer was cut off from being featured in future stories in that important publication.
  9. Acting like a know-it-all. Don’t talk down to a reporter if he’s not familiar with all the intricacies of your new product. It’s your job to educate him. We were working with the CEO of a firm that consulted to the government on a very technical project. The Washington Post sent a young reporter, new to the beat. Yet he must have been a good writer if the paper assigned him to meet with a CEO, who was very annoyed and showed it. If this happens to you, take the opportunity to teach the reporter everything you know and you’ll have him on your side for the rest of your career.
  10. Showing off. It’s not good form to offer a ride to a reporter on the corporate jet when there are so many stories in the media these days, justified or not, about corporate greed. In another true example, the CEO of a global oil company pulled up to a TV station in a chauffeured limousine. The producer was waiting for him to arrive. Imagine what the focus of the interview was: how could the CEO justify the expense of a limo when gasoline prices were so high? Thereafter, he used taxies.
  11. Trying to embargo a story. You can’t put a lid on an announcement. Even before the 24/7 news cycle it was a bad idea to try to embargo a story. We know of an agency executive who took a reporter to dinner, had one too many, spilled the beans about the new product, and lost the account when the reporter immediately ran with the story.
  12. Making a reporter look bad. It’s common practice to give special treatment to the most important reporters in your industry, providing them with additional tidbits to juice up their stories. A reporter for another media outlet will soon discover that he didn’t get all the facts that his competitor did. He will lose face with his editor. You never know where this reporter might move to next. He could replace your trusted source at the other outlet and guess who won’t be on his list for quotes?

We could add others – such as whining about coverage to the editor’s boss because the reporter took a different angle on a story.

But we’d like to invite you to join the conversation and add to our list. Do you have a story you’d like to share about mistakes you’ve made or seen others make?

5 comments to The 12 Worst Mistakes in Working With the Media

  • Amen! We so badly need more blog posts like this. As a blogger (and a PR pro), I get pitches all the time. And they are terrible. It makes me sad to see how little effort goes into pitching journalists and bloggers. I realize it’s hard work to customize your pitches, but it works nearly every time. So why not do it?

  • Gini-

    Thanks for your comment. So glad our “12 Worst Mistakes…” blog resonated with you! We appreciate your taking the time to comment. It also amazes me how little customization is done for business pitches. Truly a waste of time and money when a pitch isn’t customized and the pitch is all about the Agency and not at all about what they can do for the client! Agree with your, “So, why not do it?” comment.

  • I have to agree with most every point made here. As a journalist with a specific beat, I am very surprised how often the person I am interviewing does not know what I do or even, sometimes, remarkably, that I have already written about their company/product.

    There are a few more things that are driving me crazy. Since I have been a working journalist for 30 years, I can say these are new to the internet age.

    Everyone wants to work via email. That’s a good thing because it leaves a nice written trail of progress. But I see from my emails a increase in instances where my requests are showing a lack of progress. Emails can get lost in the flood of electronic correspondence, but please, if dealing with the media is your job, come up with a system so that reporters aren’t sending reminders, day after day, week after week. And for heaven’s sake. If you or your client are not going to answer a specific request, just say so and the reporter can move on.

    “When is your deadline?” if I am crashing on a story that’s an easy one to answer and I usually offer, “I need this right away”. However, when researching a story, I don’t have a deadline, but that doesn’t mean the inquiry should linger indefinitely or not get answered at all and I have had both happen. The appropriate question is, “is this an urgent request?” Or, “Do I need to move this to the top of my list?”

    The last one is a little touchy. “Who is it for?” As a freelancer I write for big publications and I blog. I know some people don’t want to “waste” time on bloggers but I can say that very often what starts off as an idea for a blog post turns into a news story for some of very prestigious publications.

    The wisest course seems to go back to your first point. Research the reporter and make your decisions based on their body of work, not the individual assignment.

    Carry on Joyce because I think the more we understand each other the better it will be for all of us.

    Christine Negroni
    Aviation writer

  • Titus Kisangau

    I am delighted to read this. Many of clients just assume that Media should cover everything they say. They end up disappointed when after a long interview only two or so words were captured. They dont take time to pitch key messages

    We really need these kind of articles.


  • Christine- apologies for the delay in responding to your excellent comment. A productive interview is one where both the reporter and the interviewee do their homework and set mutually agreed upon ground rules in advance. Thank you for your encouragement!

    Thank you, Titus. Clients expectations need to be managed before the interview takes place. A professional media trainer can help you with that.

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