Awkward Encounters: When Reporters Ask Tricky Questions

26 Feb Awkward Encounters: When Reporters Ask Tricky Questions

Public relations professionals strive to frame their clients positively to reporters, proactively pitching successes and standout moments. Reporters though may have their own ideas on the story they want to tell about a client. There are always things clients can’t or don’t want to talk about. It could be as simple as ongoing financial deals or the past career of an executive they don’t want to be brought up. What matters is how the PR professional navigates the awkward questions and treacherous topics a reporter may bring up. Here are a few tips that any PR pro should know about dealing with tricky aspects of media interaction or it won’t just be the client getting devoured by the press.

Plan Ahead

What constitutes a problematic topic depends entirely on the client. While the vast majority of clients won’t have truly shocking skeletons in their closet, sensitive subjects – even if they seem minor – can cause problems if broadcast in the media. It is absolutely essential for those handling PR to at least be prepared for what might come up via talking with a client and through independent research. If there might be something of concern, talk it through with the client, and figure out what to do about it. Even if there isn’t something specific to discuss, any kind of media training with a client should include how to handle aggressive or even hostile press questions. They should know what kind of answer they want to offer, what others involved in the story might say, and what the records show.

Honestly Calm

Reporters are not innately hostile; they just want to know the story. Clients might feel pressured by tough questions, but that’s why media training ahead of time is key. Staying calm and reasoned can do a lot to keep the narrative under control. Getting upset or angry only suggests that there is something sinister going on. That’s also why being honest matters, even beyond what might theoretically contradict what the client says. If the PR team has a reputation for honesty, it makes it a lot easier to put out little fires and keep them from growing larger. Even a little exaggeration on a client’s resume can be catastrophic if it’s seen as part of a pattern of dishonesty or if the PR contact claims that it is true.

Staying Friendly
On the other side of the equation, one reason it’s worth the effort to build a good relationship with a reporter is for when a story they write might not paint a client in the best light. A friendly relationship won’t prevent uncomfortable questions, but it may at least encourage the reporter to hear out the client. Being friendly with a reporter can also pay off in more indirect ways. Reporter friends can offer insight into best practices for handling the kind of awkward encounters clients might deal with.

When you work in public relations, clients may not always be perfect. Helping them put their best foot forward in the press includes dealing with the trickier aspects of their company story. Staying ahead of the story and training the client as best as possible will ensure the problems won’t spiral out of control.

Eric Schwartz
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