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A joint work between Quinn Norton and Alexandre Dulaunoy on how to interact with journalists.

A joint work between Quinn Norton and Alexandre Dulaunoy on how to interact with journalists. The presentation was given at OHM2013.

Talking to the media

You've reached out, or they've reached out to you. It could be everything from a formal request to PR to someone who sat down beside you in a bar. It could be a 30 second breaking news piece, or a book 10 years in the making. Knowing a little bit about the media can make the whole exchange more fruitful and useful not only for you and the journalist, but a public that hasn't had a lot of good information about our world.

Inform yourself

If you are interviewed by a journalist, do your home work:

  • First question is always "When is your deadline?" -- If you don't have time to talk before their deadline, they should look for someone else. This also gives you a sense of how much time they have to invest.
  • Google your journalist. Even a 10 minute skim in the bathroom on a cellphone can give you a sense of them.
  • Always ask what the focus of the piece is. You are unlikely to be able to change the direction of it, even if you disagree.
  • What has this journalist done in the past? That's the best indicator of what they'll do now.
  • Check which press/media the journalist are working for -- if they don't tell you, be suspicious. If they are freelance, they should have other work to point to.
  • What is the target audience of the outlet?
  • Who are the shareholders of the outlet?
  • In which country is the outlet based? If the piece will appear online, when?
  • If you are not the one from your organization that's supposed to talk to the press, think very carefully before you talk to the press.

DOs and DONTs:

  • Do not lie to the press. This is the internet, you will get caught.
  • Do not make shit up. See above.
  • Do expose how much you care about your topic, and how you see it fitting into the world at large.
  • Passion is infectious, share yours.
  • DO NOT LIE, MAKE SHIT UP, OR TAKE CREDIT FOR OTHER PEOPLE'S WORK. SRSLY. You might not get caught for a story, but once you are you make an enemy for life out of that journalist, editor, and publication, and anyone they know.

A few terms:

  • "Speaking on background" means your interview is not for quoting or even attribution.
  • "Off the record" can mean unquotable, but often means quotable without attribution.
  • "On the record" means that your words can be quoted and they will be attached to your name and a title.
  • "Embargo" means the story is to be held to a certain date.

GET CONFIRMATION FROM THE JOURNALIST ON ALL THESE CONDITIONS AND THEIR MEANING. These terms vary between media type and location. You are not off the record, embargoed, or on background until the journalist confirms they have agreed to these conditions. Many journalists have to check with their editors before they can agree to these conditions.

What message do you want to pass?

  • Always be friendly and polite. Journalists are humans, and they're more likely to invest in people they like.
  • Very rarely are journalists actually the enemy. When they are, it's even more important to be polite and friendly.
  • Negociate their level of technical and historical understanding. Don't talk down to a veteran, and don't talk technobabble to a n00b.
  • It's ok to send a journalist to do their homework.
  • Repeat the messages 3 times (in different ways)
  • Prepare the text for the journalist (in 3 different ways)
  • If you don't want to talk to the press, don't speak to them. (like the "don't talk to the police")
  • Avoid the "no comment" at all cost. It's usually better to talk than to deny talking. Especially when you have an opponent talking to the press. It's not giving a good impression to the reader when you have someone talking and someone else denying talking.
  • Journalists are just human. Don't forget they have to work and feed their family. If you ease their job, it's not a bad approach.
  • how to explain technical concepts to the press ...
  • drawing pictures
  • Prepare a few metaphors to explain the technical or political concepts. Metaphors are visual, if you can't visualize it and how it relates to your concept, it's not a real metaphor.
  • check your metaphors with colleagues.

Pitfalls and passing

  • Just say you're not the right person to speak to on this matter, and point them at some other hapless victim.
  • If you aren't the right person helping the journalist find the right person can create a great relationship.
  • PR firms will pretend they have control over the media. They don't. On our side, they are pretending to be our best friends.

Controlling message through a news cycle

  • Do not hoard credit. If anyone so much as got you coffee, get their name in there.
  • Do not give the same quote to multiple journalists. Vary it enough to let them get a unique piece, if not a unique message.
  • Journalists are never your friends, but they can be your allies.
  • Journalists can be very friendly.
  • A good interviewer can get you to open up, which is ok, but never forget where you are and who you're talking to.
  • Journalists are both competitive and highly cooperative. We talk to each other about you. We compare notes. We make mistakes. They are not vast conspiracies, they are just mistakes. Most of the time, corrections are welcomed and added quickly.
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