On the Record

On the Record is a guide for successful interaction with members of the media. It serves as a crash course, but we recommend you take our media-training workshop to get the full experience.

Five rules re: media interviews

  • Be prepared.
  • Stick to your message(s).
  • Consider yourself always “on the record”—and being recorded/taped.
  • Never say “No comment”. If you can’t say something publicly, don’t say it at all.
  • Remember: Nobody can make you say something you don’t want to say.

Being prepared for calls from the media could usefully include taking media training from SFU Public Affairs and Media Relations (PAMR)—and quickly consulting PAMR if you do get a call from a reporter or blogger.

Media Relations - The 10 Commandments

These 10 commandments are expanded upon throughout this page, and in the “Ten Dos and Ten DON’Ts” toward the end of the page.

  • Respond as promptly as possible to media requests and respect their deadlines.
  • Make it clear at the outset whether you're speaking for yourself or on behalf of the university.
  • Try to be frank, cordial, open and confident during an interview.
  • Make your points in 5-10 seconds. Practice beforehand if you can.
  • Use simple language and avoid jargon. Rephrase questions in your responses to reduce the risk of misinterpretation.
  • Don't try to cover up bad news. (But do consult PAMR first….)
  • Avoid emotionalism, unsubstantiated statements and off-the-record comments.
  • Take time to collect your thoughts before answering difficult questions. If necessary, tell the reporter you'll get back to him or her later.
  • Only make statements you can support with facts.
  • Always assume you are being recorded. Say nothing within earshot of a reporter, or within range of a microphone (even if you think it is switched off) that you don't want your mother—and the rest of the public—to hear you say.

When a journalist calls . . .

For many faculty members, researchers and SFU staff, a call from the media is about as welcome as news from Revenue Canada that their income tax returns are going to be audited.

Everyone, it seems, has heard stories about colleagues whose comments were taken out of context, or who were misquoted, or who found that the story done on their event or research was inaccurate or sensational.

Given those risks, it's natural to wonder whether talking to a reporter is really worth the time and trouble, particularly when that time could probably be spent on research and other activities.

It is worth it.

The case for co-operation

There are some compelling reasons to co-operate with the media, and the university encourages you to do so.

For one thing, at SFU we depend on government for much of our financing. Governments are paying particularly close attention to how they are spending the taxpayers' money. Newspaper, radio and television stories about the accomplishments of the university and its faculty help demonstrate to the public—and to the politicians—that the money is being well spent.

A single appearance on TV, for example, gets your message across to scores of thousands of people—far more than you could possibly reach in years of public lectures. Such stories show how significant research is being conducted at SFU, enhancing its reputation as a quality institution where important work is being done.

And a good reputation is a big help when recruiting top-flight faculty and students, to say nothing of persuading potential donors that SFU is worthy of their financial support. Research granting agencies see those stories, too.

Working with the media gives us the opportunity to explain what we do, why we do it and how our efforts benefit society. And the opportunity to present the objectives and achievements of the university and its people in a positive light—which benefits all of us.

Know, too, that if you turn down an invitation for an interview, the reporter will almost certainly try to talk to others and get the story anyway. If that happens, your side of the story will not be told your way, because you failed to seize the opportunity to tell it. Seize the opportunity, and turn it into the best story you can.

Reducing the risks

What can you do to make sure you're not misquoted or misrepresented?

Unfortunately, there is no absolute way of guaranteeing that your story will be reported accurately. But you can reduce the risks by knowing what reporters want, what constraints they work under, and what you can do to work effectively with them.

This website gives you some practical tips. Further assistance is available from PAMR, whose staff members deal with the media on a regular basis.

If the story is one about a real or perceived crisis or emergency, or “bad news”, or is going to be really embarrassing, consult PAMR first.

What is “news”?

News is anything the reporter or editor/producer(or blogger) thinks will interest, educate, move, or entertain a significant section of their audience.

And they do know what kinds of stories will do those things. Knowing what interests or moves their audience is their business.

While there are many definitions of “news”, here is one that (sometimes regrettably) surpasses all:  “News is anything the editor or producer says it is.”

And there is no court of appeal….

Introducing the members of the media

To deal effectively with the media, it helps to know something about how they operate. The first thing to bear in mind is that reporters are just ordinary people trying to do a job—reporting happenings that they and their editors and producers see as newsworthy.

Generally, reporters try to be objective and to get as many sides of a story as possible, but the realities of the job, deadline pressures among them, make absolute objectivity virtually impossible.

When a reporter has been assigned to do a story, he or she is expected to deliver it—with or without input from everyone involved. Consequently, your delay or refusal to provide needed information won't kill the story. Instead, it will likely result in an inaccurate or one-sided version being published—and that will please neither you nor the reporter.

Media generalists and specialists

Within a traditional news organization, you may encounter two types of journalists: “beat” reporters and general reporters. A beat reporter is a specialist in a particular field—science news, politics, crime, business, and so on—and can claim some specialized knowledge and understanding. Meanwhile, general reporters cover everything from major fires to international conferences on forensic medicine.

These days, though, specialization is much less common than in the past. And newsroom staff has been heavily cut in almost all areas. Many beats have been scrapped. The result is that, often, a reporter assigned to a story involving you may know little or nothing about the subject, the background, the context, and about you. They will probably need even basic concepts explained to them, so be ready to simplify your ideas and be sure to emphasize your main points frequently.

All journalists are working against time. They often have numerous deadlines to meet each day, not just one, so promptly returned phone calls are much appreciated. If the information needed isn't immediately at hand, offer to obtain it for the reporter as quickly as possible. And, if the promised information is going to be delayed, let the reporter know.

How a story comes about

First, the reporter, editor, producer or broadcast researcher decides that there is, or may be, a story in your work or research or what's happening here at SFU. SFU may have suggested the story, or sent a news release. Or the reporter may have come up with the idea. Or an editor or producer may have seen a story from somewhere else, and wonder what happens here.

Generally, a story interests media people when it can be tied to an event that has already made the news, when it has an interesting angle which makes the story relevant to its intended audience or when it provides human interest. News stories usually contain elements of controversy, conflict, change and emotion. And timing is often critical; what's news today is history tomorrow.

Journalists will usually want to talk to you about your research, recent developments in your specialty area or to obtain expert opinion on items in the news—developments in scientific and humanities research, the federal budget, community events, provincial election campaigns, recent archaeological discoveries, developments in the arts world, or anything else the media see as of audience interest.

After the reporter or researcher or blogger has spoken to you, and has got some answers to their questions, he or she makes a professional judgment as to whether there really is a story in it—for their media outlet or blog. And if so, how to write or how to present it for their particular market audience.No two outlets may treat the same story the same way.

During that process, the reporter or blogger selects the facts and comments and quotes that he or she feels are relevant to their story, and then writes or constructs the story in that outlet’s style.

So you can see, already, that what you think the story is—and your answers and comments—are being filtered through the reporter’s or blogger’s view of what he or she sees as the story. And through how they need to tell and present that story for their audience. 

Cooks in the newsroom kitchen

As well, there are other cooks in the newsroom kitchen. The story will be reviewed by one or more editors and producers for completeness, logic, apparent accuracy, taste, legality and so on.

The reporter’s story may thus be revised and rewritten for clarity, to add background or new information, to add or change a video clip, or simply to fine-tune and polish the story so it “reads” or looks better.

So if your comments were first filtered and processed by the original reporter, they now are being filtered and processed by some other people as well; perhaps with no reference at all to the reporter, and certainly not to you.

Newspaper editors have to try to fit stories into the paper. They often have to shorten stories by cutting out paragraphs and, occasionally, they remove essential paragraphs, inadvertently changing the meaning. Regrettable though this may be, it isn't the fault of the reporter who has no control over whether the story will be used or, if it is, how extensively it will be edited. Reporters also aren't generally responsible for typographical errors or misspelled words that appear in their published stories.

At a newspaper, just before the final version goes in a page, an editor writes the headline.  Reporters do not write the headlines on their own stories. Indeed, they usually do not see the headline on their story—or how the story was refined and edited—until they see it in the paper themselves.

Now, despite all those editors and producers behind the scenes, your most important relationship is with the reporter who does the story—not an editor you can’t see.  It is with the reporter that you need to do your “best work”. (More on this in the 20 Dos and Don’ts below.)

It's your interview, too

Most interviews are done over the phone, rather than in front of a camera. Be prepared to be called at home, not just at work. Full news conferences are rare. But video is increasingly popular, so you may be asked to use Skype or the like.

Regardless of format, a media interview is as much yours as the reporter's. While it’s a conversation with the reporter, your ultimate audience is the reader, listener or viewer. What do you want to tell them?

Look on an interview as an opportunity to spread good news about your work, your university, your colleagues and yourself—even if the reporter came looking for bad news.

Think positive: What “good news” do you want this reporter to take away from the interview and pass on to the audiences?  And how can you best deliver that?

If faced with a tough, negative, loaded or hostile question, you can try to get back to your agenda by using what public-relations people call a “bridge” to get back to your message.

Some of the traditional (but always useful) bridges:

  • “The important point is . . .”
  • “What we know is . . .”
  • “The fact is . . .”
  • “The real issue is . . . ”
  • “What our research at SFU shows is . . . ”

By using such “bridging” phrases you can hope to control the direction and tone of the interview. Such techniques allow you to deflect tough questions and shift the focus to areas with which you're more comfortable.

Interview guidelines

One public-relations person calls interviews a dance in which both dancers want to lead. Here are some guidelines to avoid missteps:

  • Make it clear at the outset whether you're speaking for yourself or on behalf of the university. Provide your full name and title.
  • Present your main points and conclusions first. This introduces the reporter to the ideas you wish to present and helps focus the interview. Can you boil your key points down to 10 words or fewer?
  • If complex information is being dealt with, sum up at the end of the interview. A succinct statement, prepared in advance, is an excellent way to ensure full understanding, particularly for complex technical stories.
  • State and explain your viewpoint clearly and frequently throughout the interview. Repeat the main points to avoid any misunderstanding.
  • Focus on your messages, not the questions. Focus on solutions, not problems. Focus on positives, not negatives. Focus on facts, not speculation.
  • Respond to parts of the questions, or rephrase them, so that you minimize the risk of misinterpretation.
  • Try to use uncomplicated language, avoiding jargon, acronyms, and difficult terms. Remember that technical terms are a foreign language to the non-expert. If you use them they will have to be translated by the reporter, and you may not be happy with that translation.
  • In research stories, try to get across the real or potential benefits to the public: How will your findings help the public be safer, smarter, healthier, better off?
  • Try to mention the name of the university at least once. (“What we have found at Simon Fraser University is . . . ” “My colleagues at SFU think . . .”)
  • Avoid evocative words such as “disaster”, “breakthrough” or “stupid”. They invite the reporter to treat the story in a sensational way.
  • Take the time to collect your thoughts before answering difficult questions. If necessary, tell the reporter you would like time to consider the question and get back to them after the interview. Then prepare an answer, telephone the reporter and give your response.
  • When you don't know the answer to a question, say so. It's much better to offer to obtain the information for the reporter later than to make a statement about which you're not sure.
  • If you are asked a question that you really can’t answer (for legal or privacy reasons, for example) say so and explain why. However, be prepared for the reporter to press you hard on the point, and from several different angles and at different times during the discussion. You are always better off deflecting a question (see the “bridges” above), than refusing to respond.
  • Only make statements you can support with facts.
  • Use one or two examples to explain your position, rather than enumerating a list of supporting facts. Sacrifice comprehensiveness for simplicity and force. After all, the typical length of a newspaper story is only about 200 words, while radio or television reports can be as brief as 15-20 seconds in full.
  • Interruptions can be fatal to an interview, so arrange to be left undisturbed while you are talking to a reporter. Have someone take your telephone calls and intercept visitors, so you can give your undivided attention to the reporter and the interview.
  • When asked your opinion on items in the news, avoid making ad hominem comments. You can say that a government or academic report reaches faulty conclusions without criticizing the author and belittling her/his research techniques and abilities. Emphasize that your research in the area has led you to different conclusions, rather than bluntly contradicting the government or author.
  • Administrators should be careful about saying they are “looking into” an issue. That can create a story: “We have learned that SFU is investigating why . . . ”
  • If you didn’t get an opportunity to prepare in advance with PAMR, you might want to “debrief” with PAMR after the interview.

Presenting yourself

Although the content of the interview is obviously paramount, the way you present yourself to the reporter and the impression you create can have an impact on the finished story. Discourtesy or inefficiency on your part can affect the reporter's reaction to you—and the story he or she prepares.

Time is as important to a reporter as it is to you, and one sure way to get an interview off on the wrong foot is to be late. Once you agree to an interview, you should take it seriously. Be available on time and be prepared, with background papers and other materials at hand for easy reference. And if, for some unavoidable reason, you are going to be late for the interview, let the reporter know as soon as you do.

Be open and friendly with the reporter, not antagonistic, suspicious or defensive. And definitely not sycophantic, either.

Don't talk down to the reporter.

Avoid using rhetorical flourishes and emotional statements—and avoid making jokes. Such efforts invariably backfire.

Be patient if the reporter asks a question which seems to have an obvious answer. In many cases, the reporter already knows the answer, but needs to have you say it so that he or she can quote you.

When a TV camera is on

  • Don’t look at the camera. Look directly, and only, at the reporter, maintain eye contact, and talk to him or her as an individual. That way, you give the impression of one person talking to another, credibly, rather than someone making a prepared speech to the thousands of viewers.
  • Lean forward just a little. It makes you look more “in control” and less nervous.
  • Try to say your key message in 5-10 seconds; the shorter the better.
  • Do not smile if the story is about bad news. (And try to control those telltale “nervous smiles” that make you come across as a deer in the headlights.)
  • Keep hand and arm gestures light and simple. Make sure your hands are empty and not fiddling with something.
  • Move slowly if you must move; don’t sway from side to side or rock back and forth.
  • Don’t nod to acknowledge a question.  (Your nod, to you, means merely ‘I understand your question’. To the viewer of the video, though, it may well come across as you agreeing with the reporter.)
  • Once the camera is rolling, don't ask that it be stopped so that you can figure something out. That could be the clip that they decide to show on the evening newscast!
  • Take sunglasses off. (Regular glasses are OK.)
  • And ensure your cellphone is off. Many an interview has been damaged by a ringtone—and a supposedly funny ringtone can be really embarrassing if the station chooses to leave it in the story.
  • Be wary of the “two-shot”. This is when, with the interview supposedly finished, the camera changes position and now focuses primarily on the reporter. This provides video in which she or he thus appears on TV to be asking you the questions you have just answered. During the two-shot, the reporter may behave as if the interview really is over, and chat with you about the weather, hockey or almost anything. But they may craftily throw in an unexpected question. You are still being recorded, so watch your answer.

Journalistic ethics

Do the news media in Canada have a code of ethics? The short answer is no. Some media outlets may have their own code and thus their own set of ethics. And there is a general ethic of “Don’t make up a story.” But there is no all-encompassing code of ethics covering all media.

The Ten DOs and Ten DON’Ts

Now, in much more depth and detail, some key DOs and DON’Ts for dealing with the media

The 10 DOs

  1. Do be prepared. 
    Anticipate questions and prepare your answers.

    Know what you want to say—your two or three “key messages”—and what you don’t want to say. Remember: Nobody can make you say something you don’t want to say.
    Know your objectives in the interview, and ensure they mesh with and support your strategic goals.

    Try to practice delivering your answers. But watch out for being over-rehearsed—and sounding like a phony because of it.

    Set aside time to conduct the interview, and shut off other calls and distractions. “I’m busy; I’ll give you three minutes” is a lousy way to start off an attempt to get your message across.

    If you are not prepared, try to buy some time. Politely tell the reporter: “I’m jammed right now and will have to call you back. When is your deadline?”  (Work on your preparation, then do call them back, and well before the deadline.)

    If you’re not the person the reporter should speak to, refer them to that person. And quickly warn that person that a reporter is about to call.

    Enter the interview with the intention of making all facts available, even if some of them are unfavourable to you. Being evasive is like waving a red flag in front of the reporter, who will press to dig out the concealed information.

  2. Do listen carefully to the questions, and answer carefully.
    If you jump in with a premature answer you may come down on a landmine.

    Obviously, if the reporter has called to ask about your new Order of Canada award, you do not want to blurt out: “I can explain all about that little misunderstanding about my travel expenses.”

    Seriously . . . many misquotes and misunderstandings arise from confusing “answers” given to questions that were not actually asked.

    Consider what is really being asked. If you’re confused, ask the reporter to restate or rephrase the question. Or confirm it with, “So what you’re asking is . . . ”

    In short, make sure you understand the question. Then pause for a second to formulate your answer.  Use a “bridge” to get back to your message if necessary.

    In a broadcast interview, avoid the words all reporters hate: ‘As I was saying’. They make for difficult editing—but you should aim to make the reporter’s and editor’s job easy.

    Avoid repeating back the words of a reporter’s question, particularly if it’s a negative question. The reporter might say something like: “I imagine that your critics are saying that you messed up. How would you answer them?” An answer that begins with something like “No, it’s not true we messed up” has an unfortunate, negative effect on radio or TV.  An audience listening with only one ear tends to hear only “We messed up  . . . .”

    What you need to say is a positive: “Our work is going really, really well. The changes in research rules meant we had work really hard, but our people did a super job for us, and everything is on track.”

    Watch out for “dead air”—deliberate silence on the part of the reporter, often used as a trap. No question at all; just silence. But you might “answer” with something you really didn’t want to say.  Instead, wait for the next question, or fill the gap by expanding and building on one of the key messages that you just gave. “Another thing is . . . A further benefit is . . . What the public will see now is . . . ”

    Some people feel uncomfortable when their comments are being recorded, but consider the recording to be a means of ensuring the accuracy of your quotes. Try to relax and talk naturally. Don't attempt to construct "quotable" material while you're being interviewed; it will almost always sound artificial and contrived.

    Always assume you are being recorded. Assume that the camera and/or the microphone and/or the recorder is always on—even if you are absolutely sure it’s off.

  3. Keep your answers short and crisp.
    Your interview may go on for half an hour or more. But these days:

    In a newspaper story, you may be quoted in only one or two short paragraphs: 25-50 words in total.

    On TV, you may be in the story for only 10 seconds.

    On radio, your voice may be aired for only 5 seconds.

    So you’ve got to get your messages across in only 5-10 seconds each.

    Can you give a specific example to illustrate each point you’re making?

    Statements beginning like this can be powerful and effective:
     “The benefit to the public is . . .”
     “What’s new and unique is . . .”
    “This will help people to . . .”
    “What will happen now is . . . ”
    “The fact is . . .”

  4. Do ensure the reporter understands your answers.
    Think fast, talk slow. Stick to the point. Be concise. Be specific. Short answers make for easier understanding. And help keep you on track.

    Further, short answers make for quotable quotes for the reporter, too. This is particularly important if you’re dealing with radio or TV and their five- or 10-second clips.

    Stay cool if you are being questioned by an aggressive or abrasive reporter.

    Go ahead and ask: “Am I saying that clearly?” But do not make that sound like: “Well, have you got it now, you bonehead?”

  5. Do summarize from time to time.
    The reporter may well be (and these days probably is) dealing with an unfamiliar subject.
    A concise review of what you’ve said—“So let me sum up where we’re coming from”—may help her or his understanding.

    And, indirectly, suggest how they can explain it to the audience—in your words and thus your messages.

    Summaries also provide quotable quotes—and can underline the logic and the context of what you are saying.

    A good reporter may well invite a summary, or ask: “Is there anything you’d like to add?”
    Seize the opportunity to summarize and to restate clearly your message and your main points. “I think the most important thing is  . . . .”

    But watch for the reporter using a deliberately inaccurate summing-up (“So what you’re telling me is . . . ’) as a trap.  You would use a “bridging” response to get back to your message: “The reality is . . . . The point is . . . What really matters is . . . “

  6. Do have supporting documentation at hand, if possible.
    Your preparation will help you figure out what reports and documents you may need on hand for quick reference.

    If you are asked for information or figures that you do not have on hand, offer to get them, and quickly call back with them.  (“I’m sorry, I don’t have the latest number for that in my head. I’ll get it to you as soon as I can. When is your deadline?”)

  7. Do offer to be available for further questions or follow-up.
    Remember: If you’re not the one providing your answers, who is? Where is the reporter going to get them? Someone who has no idea what actually is happening? An angry and emotional critic of yours who is creating a crisis and calling all the media about it?

    Give the reporter all your phone numbers: office, home, cellular, weekend retreat.  They may need to get back to you. Smart politicians and business people give reporters their unlisted numbers, too.  Reporters do not abuse these numbers; it is not in their interest to.

  8. Do remember that the reporter can “hear” or “see” more than just your words.
    Like you, reporters come with built-in BS Detectors.  Your tone and your style and your body language—as well as your content—are part of the picture.

    And when it comes to television, most viewers remember not so much what you said, but how you said it and what you looked like.

    Reporters react to aggressive, pushy, smart-alecky and devious people just the way you do. So do TV and radio audiences. So take great care not to look or sound like one.

    But be yourself: A good reporter can smell a posturing phony down 5,000 kilometres of phone line. Look the reporter in the eye—even if he or she is 5,000 klicks away. Be open, be candid, be confident, be positive. And sound like all four.

    If the news is good, be gracious. If it’s bad, be humble and take your lumps. If the news is bad, consult PAMR (Their advice will probably be: “Let’s ’fess up and get it over with. Admit, sincerely, that we were wrong, explain the problem, apologize, and explain what we’re doing about it.”).

    Of course, don’t miss the opportunity, at the same time, to put your successes on the record as well.

    A key saying to bear in mind: “The public will forgive a mistake. They will not forgive or forget a lie or a cover-up.”

  9. Do be aware that the reporter’s questions rarely appear in print or on the air—but your answers do.
    We’re always amazed at how many people in business and public life don’t fully grasp this—despite all their years of reading or hearing news stories.

    Take a look at today’s paper, then watch or listen to the news on radio or TV. You’ll see what we mean: It’s the answer that goes to the public, and only very rarely the question.

    So no matter how good or bad the question is, you’d better make sure your answer is good, clear, accurate, concise—and all yours.

  10. Do understand who the audience really is.
    You may be talking to a reporter or blogger . . . but the real audience is the people who will read or see or hear what you are saying. The audience is the public. And, through your answers, you and your university are communicating with them.

The 10 DON’Ts

  1. Don’t lie, mislead or exaggerate.
    Never, ever, lie. It could be tragic for you and the university. Don’t mislead or exaggerate or stretch the truth, either.  It will damage your credibility.

    Of course, you don’t have to tell all. . . .

  2. Don’t answer questions that are not asked.
    The reporter won’t know what you’re talking about, and a confused reporter talking at cross-purposes with you is a recipe for trouble.

  3. Don’t question the questions.
    A reporter’s question may sound irrelevant, immaterial, offensive, unfair, or even downright stupid. But it is not so to the reporter. And if you don’t answer, he or she may go elsewhere—to that angry and emotional critic of yours. Or to some source who sounds good but knows little.

    If a question really does seem out of line, try to use it to get back to relevant territory.
    For example: “I’m not sure how a question about whether I had a pet mouse when I was a child fits in with the story. We were talking about our cancer research on mice, and what’s happening here is . . . . ”

  4. Don’t answer hypothetical questions with hypothetical answers.
    Remember that really important point: The reporter’s questions do not appear—only your answers appear.

    Your hypothetical answer, appearing on its own, may suggest there’s smoke where there is none.  And thus a fire where there is none.

    You can get badly burned by hypothetical questions. So any question that starts with “What if . . .” should get a reply like this:
    “What’s really happening, and what’s very important, is  . . . .”

    That “bridge” puts you both back on your agenda and your key messages.

    In the same vein, do not fall for needling questions, or questions that attempt to put words in your mouth. Take a deep breath, and bridge to your message.

  5. Don’t say: “No comment.”
    “No comment” is a comment. And it usually comes across as somehow guilty or negative. . . .
    If you really can’t give or get an answer, say so—and carefully explain why. And really do explain; don’t just say glibly: “It’s policy.”

    If the reporter persists, simply say: “I’m sorry. I’ve explained why I cannot answer that.”  And then use a bridge to get back to the list of things you want to get across.

  6. Don’t say: “That’s off the record.”
    If you say something to a reporter, it should be for the record. After all, you’re trying to tell the public your story. . . .

    But it’s not unusual for a poorly prepared person to tell a reporter something, then have second thoughts, and then add hastily:  “Oh, that’s off the record.”

    That simply invites this reply: “I didn’t agree to anything being off the record, therefore it is on the record.”

    If you ask the reporter in advance, “May I say something off the record?” most experienced reporters will simply say, “No”. Their job is get things on the record and in front of the public.

    Even if they say "yes", they may later go on to pursue the information through some other channel, to get it on the record.

    And what on earth are you going to do when the reporter does say: “No”? You have just waved a red rag in front of the bull, signalling clearly that there is something you don’t want made public. You have aroused suspicion—and invited a professional digger to go digging.

    In short: If you can’t say something publicly, don’t say it at all.

    On extremely rare occasions, with advance help from PAMR, it may be possible to set up controlled “background” or “not for attribution” interviews in which you won’t be named. Don’t try to do this on your own.

    You may feel the story in question is none of the reporter’s or the public's business. OK, but you are going to be asked questions, and “None of your business” is an answer that sounds as bad to the public as “No comment.”

    So be positive: Think of the opportunity you have to get positive messages out to the public.

  7. Don’t ask if you can review the story in advance.
    You cannot see it or check it in advance. Nor can you check the reporter’s notes. Or see their video.  Simple as that. It’s one of the ground rules of the news business.

    Journalists take professional pride in their independence and bridle at efforts to control or censor them. Don't try to exert any editorial influence on the completed story.

  8. Don’t argue or lose your cool.
    By definition, the reporter—or the editor or producer—always has the last word. There's an old saying: "Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel."

    Fencing with the reporter, arguing, or blowing your stack may be a natural reaction, particularly if you are provoked by some harsh, hostile or off-the-wall question.

    But the question is not seen or heard—only your answer or your reaction is.   And if you react negatively, you and your answer, and the university, will be seen in that negative image.

  9. Don’t play favourites.
    You may have your favourite reporter or reporters. They seem to understand you and your work, and are honest, ethical square-shooters.

    But giving information to Reporter A, and not to Reporter B, can be a very risky game.
    You may not like a reporter who covers your field.  But he or she is what you’ve got to deal with. Try to build a working relationship with them. Don’t cut them off in favour of some other reporter you find easier to get along with.

    Again:  If you aren’t telling your story to Reporter B, who is?

    If one reporter calls you on a story, chances are another will. Treat them all equally and equitably.  Don’t give nice detailed answers to one, and reluctant, partial answers to another.

    And if Reporter X calls you with questions, don’t phone Favourite Reporter Y, from another media outlet, to tip him or her off that Reporter X is working on such-and-such a story. It’s bad form—and it’ll cost you in the long run.

  10. 10. Don’t whine about “misquotes” or bad press”.
    Even if you conduct a superb interview, the final story or headline may strike you as unfair or inaccurate.

    The media are good, but they are far from perfect.  They do get their wires crossed now and then. First, take the time to decide whether the error is serious or relatively unimportant. Remember that the reporter is interpreting your story for the general public and doesn't require the same precision as a report in a professional journal.

    If the errors aren't too serious, then likely the best thing to do is to exercise forbearance and suffer in silence. Your colleagues should understand the hazards of media reporting and make allowances for them.

    If the story is seriously inaccurate, you can consult PAMR for advice about steps to set the record straight. PAMR may mediate, or it may recommend that you call the reporter.  If you do, then “I’m concerned that I didn’t give you the figures clearly” works much better than “You fouled up. . . .” After all, the foul-up may not have been the reporter’s at all, but an editor’s.

    If that doesn’t work, call the editor or producer. But be patient and be civil. Or with help from PAMR write a calm and civil —and very short—letter to the editor.

    And don’t whine in public; you will only be seen as a whiner. Isn’t that the way you see politicians who credit their victories to their personal brilliance, but their defeats to “bad press”?


If you follow all these tips and thoughts, we hope you’ll get only good press.

After all, the news outlets are only the medium. You are the messengers, and yours are the messages.