The old saw says that all publicity is good publicity, but that old saw is rusty and out of tune. There are indeed times when staying silent is preferred.
We regularly run private media training sessions for executives and boards of directors. In those sessions, we talk quite a bit about what to say and what not to say, and also about when to say nothing at all. Every request for a media interview should be triaged. Ideally, you’ll have a communications person who can take the call and ask the reporter a bunch of questions. After that first call you should know a lot of things, including:
- Who is the reporter? What outlet do they work for? If either is unknown, do some research. Google is your friend and will almost always give you a wealth of information very quickly.
- Have they covered this story or something like it before?
- Do they know your industry? Your company? Your spokesperson?
- How did the story originate? Where did the story idea come from?
- What angle are they pursuing?
- What’s their deadline?
- Do they want you on camera?
- Who else are they interviewing?
As you’re doing the triage, you’re probably also wondering if you have a spokesperson available. If the story is of critical importance to your organization, we’d almost always recommend you make time to respond. You may want to limit the response to a written statement or agree to a full interview on camera. It all depends.
Sometimes you’ll be asked to comment on a court case involving your organization. It’s a rare lawyer who handles the media well. Some are fabulous, but many don’t really understand how to work with the media to the best advantage of their clients. Too often, I’ve seen lawyers turn down interviews that they should have done. I guess it’s easier to err on the side of caution, but I’d rather people know how to take advantage of useful opportunities when they present themselves.
Simply put, the media give you an opportunity to communicate efficiently to a large audience. If the stakes are high and you’re not sure, we advise writing out all the pros and cons to doing an interview. What are your objectives in this situation? What does a win look like (and we don’t mean ‘scoring points’)? Does communicating help you move closer to achieving your objective? For cons, ask yourself what can go wrong? What are the really tough questions? How will you answer them? Will you just be contributing to noise or can you achieve something positive by talking?
Just because an interview is risky to do doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Declining an interview doesn’t mean the story won’t air. Often it only means that the media will seek other interviews to tell the story – your competitors, adversaries or third parties who may be called on to speculate about the matter at hand. Do you want to cede the narrative to others or do you want a chance to shape it yourself?
Remember, you’re in control of what you say and how you say it. With practice, you can nail any interview, even tough ones.