Say What? Write a Media Relations Policy for Your Firm: Two dozen rules for responding to media queries

by David M. Freedman

All firms with more than one employee should have a clearly written media policy that spells out who in the organization may respond to media inquiries, what kinds of information can or should be released to reporters, and what information must be kept confidential.

It’s important to assure your employees that talking to the media, and establishing good relationships with reporters, can and should be constructive. It can help to establish an accurate public perception of who you are and what you do. There’s no need to feel intimidated: Reporters need you as a source of news and background information as much as you need them to give you publicity and clarify your point of view.

A good media policy should include most or all of the following elements:

List (by name or position) who in the company may respond to media inquiries; and for those who may not, to whom they should direct media inquiries.

Be sure you’re familiar with the publication or broadcast that the reporter represents.

Treat reporters, editors, and program directors courteously. Their impression of each individual in your firm, all the way down to the receptionist, affects their impression of the entire firm, and that may influence how they report about you.

Return reporters’ calls within an hour, if possible. They are usually on tight deadlines and they appreciate (and occasionally reward) promptness. If they leave a message for a member of your staff who is not available or can’t be reached, another staffer should return the call. You don’t want to hear on the evening newscast that your firm “could not be reached for comment.”

Explain to the media who you are and what you do, as you would at the end of a written news release. Prepare a brief statement to which all authorized firm members can refer. Aside from that brief statement, don’t try to promote yourself — just answer the questions.

Speak in plain English that average readers and listeners can understand. Don’t use industry jargon or bureaucratic language.

Your media relations policy should describe what kinds of data or information must remain confidential.

Feel free to ask the reporter questions about the story — what’s the theme, what’s the point of view, who else is being interviewed?

If the reporter asks for information that is already a matter of public record, don’t hesitate to share it. Withholding such information will only force the reporter to develop other sources.

Always be truthful and accurate. Never exaggerate or inflate. Understatement usually works better than hyperbole, especially when dealing with experienced (cynical, skeptical) journalists. Trust, as in most good relationships, is key to good media relations.

Discuss with reporters only what is in your area of expertise. Do not speculate. If you don’t have personal knowledge about a subject, help the reporter reach a source who does, even if that source is not a member of your firm. Providing reliable resources enhances your credibility with the media, and they will likely come back to you in the future.

When you talk to a reporter, remember that you’re really talking to the public.

If you need time to research or think about how to answer a question, it’s okay to tell the reporter that you need time. Ask what his or her deadline is, and then assure them you’ll call back with an answer before that time.

Avoid disparaging other companies or defaming other people. Not only is it actionable, but it makes you appear unprofessional.

Refer media questions about your firm’s policies or political views to the firm’s designated executive or spokesperson.

If you cannot answer a question, make sure the reporter understands why. Don’t simply say “no comment” — which may be interpreted as evasiveness. You might say, for example, “I’m sorry but this matter is the subject of a pending lawsuit” or “I’m sorry but I’m legally obligated to protect my client’s confidentiality.”

Keep it simple. If you finish answering the question and the reporter remains silent, don’t feel pressured to elaborate. It may only serve to dilute your message. Instead ask, “Have I answered your question?”

If a reporter asks about a pending lawsuit or criminal action, it’s normally not advisable — and in many cases it’s improper — to discuss it. This point is discussed further below.

Record or take notes on any interview you have with the media, and send a memo about the interview to a designated executive as soon as possible. That person needs to be aware of stories in progress that involve your firm, in the event additional information or clarificaton is needed. If you plan to record the interview, be sure to ask the reporter’s permission to do so.

Unless you’re an experienced public relations professional, assume that everything you say to a reporter is on the record. If you don’t want to see it in print or on the air, don’t say it.

Don’t argue with the reporter. You can be persuasive, but never confrontational.

Don’t ask the reporter if you can review the story before it’s published. If the story is highly controversial, you may ask the reporter during the interview to read back your quotes to confirm accuracy.

Don’t try to infringe on reporters’ sacred First Amendment right — they don’t take kindly to it! In fact, the news media most frequently have a legal right to report on and photograph newsworthy events or statements made in public.

If the published story contains minor factual errors or omissions, endure it — in fact, expect it! If the story seriously misrepresents your position or misstates an important fact, call it to the reporter’s attention in a polite letter, requesting a correction. Unless the timeliness of the correction is critical, do not call to complain. And, never go over the reporter’s head to complain to his or her editor or news executive unless the reporter’s response is wholly unsatisfactory. Again, be careful, you never want to alienate reporters.

The Risk of Disclosure During a Lawsuit

In the case of a pending court action, it is important to discuss public disclosure and possible media coverage with your attorney, early in the case. Frequently, lawyers are adamant about not talking to the press about a pending case. As a general rule, there are few advantages but many risks. Remember, anything you say publicly is admissible in court.

Usually the best thing to do is to work with your lawyer to prepare a brief, polite statement to the effect that you will be happy to comment on the case when it is out of litigation.

Of course, there may be exceptions, e.g., where the lawsuit has high visibility and raises important public issues. You may decide that some form of disclosure to the press is in order. But, be extremely careful. If a reporter calls asking questions, the best thing to do is tell him or her that you’re not available to talk now (e.g., you are in a meeting) and arrange a time to be interviewed later. This will give you an opportunity to discuss the matter with your lawyer and plan your response.

Another reason that some litigants agree to be interviewed by journalists is that by listening to their questions, they may be able to find out if journalists have a distorted view of the case. If so, an interview is an opportunity to straighten them out by explaining what has transpired in the courtroom. That information is public domain anyway. However, never talk about evidence not yet admitted in court, and never argue or advocate. Just be factual.

A clearly written firm media policy can help to minimize your firm’s media liabilities and promote a positive public perception of your firm — it’s all in what you say and how you say it.

About the Authors

David M. Freedman is a Chicago-based freelance legal and financial writer and media relations consultant. He has served on the editorial staffs of professional, trade, business, and consumer magazines. His feature articles have appeared in The ABA Journal, Law Practice Management, Nation’s Business, Everybody’s Money, and dozens of other periodicals. He is coauthor of a non-fiction book, Death of an American (Continuum, New York, 1983), based on a civil rights lawsuit. He received a Golden Gavel Award, presented by the State Bar of Wisconsin for outstanding legal journalism in 1991. You can reach him by phone at 847-433-5000, or by e-mail at dave@dmfreedman.com.

Janice E. Purtell is the founder and president of JP Consulting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She helps professional service organizations plan and develop marketing programs and systems. She has 15 years’ experience in the legal services industry and previously served as director of client services for Wisconsin’s seventh largest law firm. She is a co-founder and current president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. You can reach her by phone at 414-628-9346, or by e-mail at dalebrook@aol.com.

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