What to do when reporters call

Ask before you answer, learn to pivot, and save your best stuff for us.


A Reporter has called. He or she wants to talk to you about your Nobel Prize, or election loss, or strangely shaped play structure.

Should you call back?

Friends and neighbors ask Decoder this question all the time. They must think we have some kind of expertise in communications theory. Our answer - perhaps surprisingly - is often "no."

Unless you're seeking publicity for some reason, talking to journalists can be a dangerous business. They're like beagles nosing around in the backyard - you don't know what they're up to, and sometimes you're sorry after you find out.

But hardly anyone ever takes this advice. The lure of appearing on TV or in print is just too strong. Decoder is constantly amazed at how people will yabber away if you just get them on the phone. [Ed. note: Good thing, too. You'd be a crummy electrician.]

So, since you're going to talk anyway, at least be prepared. Here are a few simple rules for dealing with the Fourth Estate. What's left of it, anyway.

Ask their angle. Legit reporters will tell you what kind of story they're working on. If it's zoning violations, and they want to know about that triple-deck play structure, take a pass.

Nonlegit reporters won't exactly say. They'll give some general answer. Sometimes you can see their eyes twitch when they try to mislead you.

Answer the question you wish they'd asked. Remember, you're in charge of the answers. If you're asked a question you don't like, just pivot and talk about something else.

Good politicians are masters of this approach. In practice, it sounds something like this: "Thanks for that query, but I'm not here to talk about the indictment. I think voters are more interested in my new bill, which would ensure that July 4 always falls on a Friday...."

Stop when you're done. Don't talk to fill empty space. Sometimes that is when you say things you regret later.

A wise old reporter once told Decoder that any fool could ask a question, but it took real skill to not ask them. He said he learned the most by just sitting there and letting the silence drag on after an answer was finished. Maybe he'd raise an eyebrow, or say "hmm." Human nature then would take over and the poor interviewee would start blurting stuff out.

So there you have it - an expensive media-relations course in 400 words.

And why are we telling you this? What's in it for us here at Decoder HQ?

All we ask in return is one simple thing. You can ignore those other reporters, but if we call - please answer.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.