PR Wars Podcast: When a reporter is hostile

Have you ever noticed that when you’re pitching a good story, you can’t get a reporter on the phone? And when there’s a bad story, you can’t get a reporter off of your phone. On today’s PR Wars podcast, find out why message discipline is so important when dealing with a hostile reporter.

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A.I. generated show transcript: “We want the truth.” “We want the truth.” “We want the truth.” “I have news for everybody. Get over it.”

Announcer
It’s time. Welcome to PR Wars coming at you live from Atlanta, Georgia. Now, here is your host… Chris Shigas.

Chris Shigas: Hello, and welcome to PR Wars. I’m Chris Shigas. Have you ever noticed that when you’re pitching a good story, it seems you can’t get a reporter on the phone. And when there’s a bad story, you can’t get a reporter off of your phone?

A lot of times on PR wars, we talk about nurturing your circle of reporters. But there are times especially in crisis communication, that giving a reporter everything they want is not beneficial. It’s not beneficial for you. It’s not beneficial for your brand. When you give a reporter all of the answers that they want in issues management situation, it doesn’t mean that they’ll write a nicer story about you. A reporter that’s focused on doing a negative story about your company will write a negative story. And it’s your job to capture as many column inches as possible to counter the negativity of the story’s thesis.

My first public relations client. I mean, the first one where I had the keys to the account, I was running the show. It’s a giant new shopping mall 200 and $80 million at the time, quite the investment. It was the holiday shopping season to perfect timing. This mall went all out. I mean, they hired the best Santa ever. Really, I think it was legitimately Santa. And this Santa was so good. He had a writer for his green room, you know, like with the food and the snacks and the drinks. And it was like backstage at a Van Halen concert. My job was to encourage the media to shoot their holiday shopping stories at this new shopping mall. It’s an easy pitch because the mall was brand new and it was beautiful. And it was huge.

Well, one busy shopping day, my job drastically changed. As shoppers loaded their cars with Christmas presents, gunfire erupted in the mall parking lot. After the panic subsided. When man was shot dead in his car. It turns out, there was a drug deal that met this horrific conclusion. And as media descended onto the mall, the management was thrust into its first crisis.

Well, this was a big local story. And the management needed to do a little more than just a holding statement. And it’s not always the case where a PR person becomes the spokesperson. But in this case, the mall management elected me, they had a lot riding on this. My key message was that safety is our number one priority. And we’ll review all of our security procedures, make sure that you and your family have a safe experience while shopping at the mall. I shared these talking points with the client. And we all agreed that this is the way to go.

My first interview was with the local newspaper, and this one was on the phone. He asked me for the malls comment regarding the shooting. I expressed empathy for the victim’s family. I expressed gratitude for the heroic efforts of the first responders. And then I proceeded into my key message. Safety is our top priority. We will review all of our security procedures to make sure that you and your family have a safe experience while shopping at the mall.

Oh, I could instantly tell that the reporter did not like that answer. In fact, I don’t think he liked me. He wouldn’t even let me finish my sentence. The reporters voice increased in volume. His Word pace became more rapid. His tone distinctively, became irritated. You mean a person was killed and you’re only going to review your security. What are you going do about this? How can someone feel safe at your mall? How can you guarantee this won’t happen again? I knew what he was doing. This is called the machine gunner. It’s when a reporter asks you a whole bunch of rapid fire questions designed to rattle you. It’s designed to move you off your talking points. You see reporters, they hear talking points all the time. This is not new to them. This particular reporter became angry, he became hostile.

Now, since he cut me off the last time I repeated my key message again. Oh, no, this is not going well. I thought this reporter’s head was going to explode. As I listened to this reporter, I could deduce that he clearly did not like my answers. And I almost broke. I was almost suckered into an argument with this guy. I could taste the words forming in my mouth. I wanted to say, Well, what are we supposed to do about this? How is this possibly our fault? What are we supposed to search every car that comes into the parking lot? No one does that this isn’t our fault. But I caught myself. That would have been a horrible message. Instead, I repeated our key message on how safety is our top priority. The reporter became so irate that he hung the phone up on me.

I was shaking. I noticed that I didn’t breathe the entire phone call. And I exhaled what was left in my body and took a big gulp of air. What would he write? This is not going to be good. Now, early in the morning, I looked at the physical copy of the newspaper, you know back when we used to touch and feel newspapers, and the story was the front page headline above the fold. As I looked, the first words that I saw was my name and a feeling of dread fell on me. And then there was my quote… my words, safety is our top priority. And we will review all of our security procedures to make sure that you and your family have a safe experience while shopping at the mall.

Oh, thank God. My quote is the exact thing that I had discussed with the management you see the reporter could only use the words that came out of my mouth in the story. There were no reporter angry questions. There was no hanging up the phone on me. It was just my answers. This first experience made me a devout believer in messaging. Talking Points are important. Sticking to them are just as important. You know, long time abc news anchor sam donaldson. He said the questions don’t do the damage. Only the answers do. So do me a favor. The next time you’re being grilled by a reporter. Don’t argue crisis are about people. Keep it human, show empathy, and stay on message. Now go get ’em.

PR Wars was selected as a Top PR Podcast You Must Follow in 2020 by Feedspot.

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