What to do when a reporter calls you

The phone rings, someone knocks or the inbox dings. Surprise! It’s a reporter or blogger from an outlet you’ve been dying to get into. You immediately jump into an interview, right? Wrong!

But what if the reporter is on a tight deadline, has talked to your competition and you fear getting left out of the story?  Do it anyway, yes? No!

Taking a cold call from a reporter on an unknown topic is almost always a bad idea. At best, you may deliver an interview that is missing key messages or is disconnected from current news headlines.  Or, at worst, you may unwittingly feed a negative narrative the reporter has picked up that reflects poorly on your brand.

The right answer in this scenario is, “I’m really happy you thought to contact me, but I can’t talk right now.  What is your deadline? Can we reschedule for tomorrow morning?”

Smart questions to ask a reporter

Let the reporter know your designated public relations professional will call back shortly to confirm the time and set up the interview.  After determining your availability, the PR manager can call the reporter back to confirm the appointment and find out the following:

  • What is the reporter’s drop-dead deadline?
  • When will the story publish or air?
  • What questions does the reporter have, or what topics will he or she address?
  • What other sources has the reporter already spoken to?
  • Is this a one-off story or part of a series of stories on the topic?
  • Does the reporter have your bio – including title, name spelling and high-resolution headshot?
  • Does the reporter have your organization’s latest relevant press release or fact sheet?
  • Why is the reporter doing this story now, and is it related to other breaking news?

Media training starts before you respond

It’s critical to understand the context of the story and how the reporter may portray you and your organization. For instance, does the reporter see you as an independent expert or as part of a bad trend? Knowing whether the reporter has you wearing a white hat, black hat or no hat helps you prepare.

Your public relations team also should research past articles the reporter has written about this topic and your organization. Have them check out the reporter’s social media posts. Your team should try to get a feel for the reporter’s interview style as well.

Once you have solid intel on the situation, you and your team, which might include your director of communications or vice president of marketing, need to decide whether doing the interview makes sense. If the reporter is open-minded and is willing to give you a chance to tell your story, then the reward could outweigh the risk.

However, if the reporter already has made up his or her mind about the players and their roles on this issue and doesn’t see your side favorably, then be careful. You may decide to opt out and submit a written statement via email to the reporter instead.  You may even decide to approach other reporters more likely to let you share your complete point of view.

Finally, make sure that the person who answers your phones or takes incoming calls for your organization in general has received media training to handle calls from a reporter. Tell him or her not to offer any comments or answer any questions. They should tell the reporter they are not an authorized spokesperson and may not be quoted. They should get the reporter’s name, publication, contact information, topic and deadline. They should let the reporter know someone else will get back to them.

Well-trained spokespersons avoid the hot mess of a cold call

All of this is part of a media training process and protocol that companies of all sizes should have in place to maximize their opportunity to obtain “earned media placements,” in other words, proactively contacting reporters to seek inclusion in positive news stories.

But what do you do if your business doesn’t have a designated communications leader with formal media training? You can contract with a media training consultant or agency who are experts at getting your company spokesperson ready for a crisis, ongoing public affairs issues or positive topics that generate goodwill and awareness for your organization.

Whatever media interview opportunity you may have now or in the future, keep in mind the most effective company spokespersons are those who are prepared. By taking a cold call from a reporter, you ignore an important rule of media training and run the risk you and your organization will end up in a hot mess.

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17 thoughts on “What to do when a reporter calls you

Add yours

  1. Joel: I like your post. Too many organizations panic when the media calls and lose control of the situation. I agree that in the “dance” that so often takes place with the media that setting some ground rules is always a good idea. I also agree that asking for context is helpful for both the reporter and the organization. Unfortunately, far too many media outlets have taken an adversarial tone and are looking for a negative piece when they contact your organization. Good advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a dance I heard you do-si-do with big reporters for big outlets time and again from just over the cube wall, but must say I enjoyed reading more about the process you were working through in these moments. Getting your story told (or not told) is an art and requires someone like yourself with the experience and know how. Thanks for the read, Joel.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a dance I heard you do-si-do with big reporters for big outlets time and again from just over the cube wall, but must say I enjoyed reading more about the process you were working through in these moments. Getting your story told (or not told) is an art and requires someone like yourself with the experience and know how. Thanks for the read, Joel.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love the piece! Great advice and a timely reminder that a public relations professional is key to avoiding the pitfalls. Looking forward to the next post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the positive remarks, Gloria! All the great comments have already got me working on my next piece. Of course, if there’s a topic you or anyone else wants to hear about, please let me know.


  5. Great Information Joel! Having the knowledge of what to way when can be the difference between a Good outcome and a Great outcome!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great advice Joel. Far too often senior management in companies believe that as an executive they are capable of winging it with media. These are great points and a good reminder for all who might may find themselves faced with a media opportunity to slow it down, prepare and then proceed.


  7. Joel: Good counsel on media training and how to deal with the news media. Unfortunately, far too many media reps are only interested in doing sensational hatchet jobs and never learned what real journalism involves. Watching much of the national media is no help. It’s important to remember that there is a way to represent your organization in such a manner that will give you the best chance of getting fair treatment in the media. All organizations should plan for at minimum annual training to keep their key people ready for when the media calls. Very informative. – David Fierro, VP, Quest Corporation of America


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