I write articles for the national news. I also provide professional PR advice to those in need. That means, i guess, that i can see the whole journalistic culture thing from both sides: I can see what journos need to do to get a “good” story: and i can also see how that can be highly abusive to vulnerable individuals. How it can leave the ordinary woman in the street feeling exploited and dirty.
I’ve been aware of that for some time – but particularly so over the New Year, as i have been grappling with the press on behalf of one or two specific individuals who have come off very much worse. after their brush with the media.
So much so that i thought i’d set out one or two principles here that should stand folks in good stead if ever they find a representative of the UK’s foorth estate turned up on their front doorstep.
Most of us are very complaisant. we want to be helpful: want to do good. So when some journalist arrives and either starts to ask favours or, alternatively, to boss us around, we are naturally inclined to go along with them.
DON’T! Be gentle, but assertive: tell them if it is inconvenient to talk now. Say how you want an interview to be conducted. If they want a story and you don’t need to say anything to them, they’ll huff…but they’ll go along with you.
Don’t let them through your door
Just don’t. On any pretext. Its a bit like the evil spirits thing – that they can only come in if invited. And once in, you are at a disadvantage.
They can look around your property: they can pick up impressions of you, often erroneous, from your books, your decor, your wallpaper. They can extract vibes from any random interaction you have with your children or partner.
They can even, as one news group used to teach its young reporters a decade or so ago, “borrow” photos you just happen to have left on your sideboard. Do not let the press in. They will do harm.
Don’t answer questions on your doorstep/off the cuff
You will say something you don’t mean. You will use an unfortunate turn of phrase. You will give away hostages to fortune.
Even the questioning process is dangerous, because journalists ask leading questions… “So, Mr Jones, are you saying you are less cruel to your wife than you used to be?” What’s the answer? Whatever you say, once that question has been asked – even a “no comment” will drop you in it.
Don’t let your guard down
Often the best stuff, quote wise, is given after the interviewee thinks the interview is over…when their guard is down and they think stuff is now “off the record”.
Nothing is EVER truly off the record.
If you say something storyworthy, it will find its way in to the story. Eventually. Whether you intended it to or not.
Say no to impromptu pictures
Either supply your own pics or if you have a good sense of how things look, make sure you are directing your pics yourself. Even then, be wary of awkward “set-up shots” or candid shots after a session has ended.
Issue a statement
best and most protective answer to the journalistic ambush is…write down what you want to say and issue it as a statement. Don’t, then, answer follow-up questions other than to say “i have made a statement and you must take from it what you will”.
Stick to that and you may appear boring but…again, no hostages to fortune.
Ask for interview questions up front
A less good option, both because journalists hate it – and will usually rsist it – and even with upfront questions, that does not stop an individual from going off script at the end. Best solution is not to do an interview at all: so this is really second best to that. Better than an unscripted interview – but not by much.
Phone a friend/make a record
The moment you know you have been door-stepped, get a friend in on the act. They should be there to provide moral support and/or to witness what you do (and don’t) say. However, if you are likely to be being interviewed for a major news story, best to record the interview yourself as well. It saves a lot of argument later.
Phone a professional
Last but by no means least don’t be afraid to bring in someone who knows how to handle the media professionally. A good option – for those in the trans spotlight – is Trans Media Watch.
Also, depending on the subject matter, yours truly: I have worked with a very wide variety of individuals handling press and helping to defuse stories. Not always wholly successfully – but often fire-fighting after the worst damage has already been self-inflicted.
Contacted early enough, the nuclear tactic that i have employed on occasion is…
Spoil the story!
Yes: the press loves exclusives. So one way to get yourself out of the spotlight…or out of the one that you think will show you in the worst light, is to prepare your own story and release it before the media gaze returns.
This has two results. First, because most journalists have a lazy streak, many will just lift whatever you write and YOUR version of your story will quickly become the accepted one. Second, news ages very very fast. Tracking stories, i have had stories that were exclusives at 10am, were old by 10.30am…and dying in terms of their commercial value by the afternoon.
Once your version is out there, the deed is done…the circus will move on. Mostly. Its not always the right answer. It is sometimes.
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This is, of course, far from an exhaustive list. But i think it goes some way towards being helpful and is something to build upon. All sensible additional sugegstions gratefully received.