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Q&A;: Working with the news media


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—Even under normal circumstances, a call from the news media to your church can be nerve-wracking. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Consider the answers Rob Phillips, communications director at LifeWay Christian Resources, provides to these commonly asked questions about working with the news media.

Why talk to reporters?

Phillips:It’s our responsibility. Whether working for an SBC entity such as LifeWay or serving in a local church, our ministries impact the public and we have a duty to speak openly and honestly with people. Besides, the news media are conduits for reaching our audiences with important messages, especially in times of crisis. In this day of 24/7 news, blogs, Twitter and cell phone videos, someone is going to tell our story. Shouldn’t it be us?

Who decides what news is?

Phillips: The news media. We can influence the news—suggest angles, pitch stories and help shape the reporting of events, but ultimately news directors and editors decide what gets played. However, the emergence of social media is diminishing the control of news and information once held by newspapers, radio and TV stations. In many ways, this is a positive development, but not without its risks since the social media are largely unedited.

What if we think reporters are out to get us?

Phillips: Generally speaking, reporters are out to get the story. There are clear cases of bias in the media, but even the most slanted reporters almost always give the other side a chance to speak. Keep in mind the difference between a news story, analysis and commentary.

Which reporters should we talk to?

Phillips: All of them, but in a crisis you may need to prioritize according to ministry and business needs. Even if you don’t like some reporters, remember never to pick a fight with people who buy paper by the ton and ink by the barrel.

Who should talk to reporters?

Phillips: Designated spokespersons from your church or organization. If possible, they should be media trained. This will prepare them to share key messages in addition to answering the questions.

If I’m the spokesperson, what should I say?

Phillips: Stick with what you know—your area of expertise. Don’t speculate. Don’t discuss confidential or privileged information, such as employee records. Say, “I don’t know,” when you don’t know. Most importantly, when you’ve answered the question and bridged to a message, stop talking.

What if a reporter uses only one quote?

Phillips: Reporters tend to look for “sound bites,” not monologues. Also, editors can be merciless on reporters’ copy, and other pressing news items may have reduced the “news hole” for the day. It’s good to have two or three key messages when you agree to an interview. Keep repeating the messages as you answer the reporter’s questions.

Why can’t I see the story before it’s printed?

Phillips: Frankly, it’s offensive to a journalist to be asked that question. Reporters talk to lots of people, work on tight deadlines, and submit their stories to editors. Good writers will call you to check facts before filing a story. As a safeguard, you may want to record your interview. It might encourage the reporter to quote you accurately, and you can always post the interview on your blog or website if you think you were treated unfairly.

When should I say “no comment?”

Phillips: Never. These two words imply that you’re guilty or hiding something. However, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t discuss this because …” when you don’t have anything to say; when you’re not the designated spokesperson; when you’re not prepared; or when the information is privileged (like personnel files), proprietary (competitive data, for example) or in litigation. In other words, it’s OK to decline comment when you have a good reason, but you should share that reason with the reporter rather than use the fateful words “no comment.”

Is it OK to speak “off the record?”

Phillips: Generally, no. A good rule of thumb is that any time you’re in the presence of a reporter—even at a social function or church—consider yourself on the record. An exception is the “background” interview during which you provide non-attributable information to a journalist to help shape a story or increase the reporter’s understanding. Trust must be established between you and the reporter for such an interview to be granted, or you may end up wishing you had said “no comment.”

How do I fix it if the reporter gets it wrong?

Phillips: First, assess the damage. Is a misspelled name or a minor factual error worth your outrage? If the story is negative to begin with, do you want to risk a second negative story? If the errors are substantial, however, begin by contacting the reporter who may print a correction or even a retraction. If you reach an impasse, contact the editor for that section of the paper, write a letter to the editor or post a comment on the newspaper’s website (many online newspaper editions allow this). Keep your church website, and perhaps your blog, in mind as potential places to get “equal time.”

What should I do if a reporter calls me?

Phillips: Get the reporter’s name, number, deadline, subject and other specifics. Promise a call back—and keep your promise. Then work through your organization’s media response procedure to provide an appropriate response. You are never obligated to provide an on-the-spot interview just because a reporter asked.