To Craft a Strong Message, Think Like a Reporter
Interacting with the news media can take many forms: A broadcast interview – TV or radio, live or recorded. An interview with a print reporter – in person or by phone. (Yes, newspaper and magazine reporters still exist!) A press briefing or news conference. An off-the-record interview where you and the reporter agree that what you say can be used but not attributed to you or your organization. You can issue a written news release or statement. Or you could post something on Facebook or some other social media site – popular sources of information for reporters.
Regardless of what vehicle or approach you use to communicate with the traditional or “new” news media, you’ll always be confronted by this question: “What do I say?”
To answer that question, it helps if you know a thing or two about how reporters do their jobs – more specifically, how they write.
Examine any news story and you’ll see that it follows a predictable pattern or formula. Most reporters learn that formula in their journalism classes or through on-the-job training.
Here are the key elements of that formula.
The 5Ws and 1H
When you talk to a reporter, expect to be asked one or more of the following questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Reporters consider these to be among the most important tools in their tool kit. So, when developing your message or statement, be sure to address as many of those questions as are appropriate or applicable to the topic. Doing so can help reduce the number of questions or follow-up questions asked by the reporter.
The Inverted Pyramid
Every reporter is familiar with the inverted pyramid. It’s taught on the first day of class in Journalism 101. Picture an upside-down triangle, with the broad base at the top and the small tip at the bottom. The base represents the most important information; the tip represents the least important information. If you provide information in most important to least important sequence, you’re making it easier for reporters to write their stories. In a way, you’re getting some control over the reporting process.
Reporters are trained to be (or are born) skeptical or cynical, so they are likely to challenge or ignore statements that lack substance. Consider these statements: “People are our most important resource.” “Our firm is very concerned about the environment.” “Safety is our number one priority.” These are not meaningful statements. They are glittering generalities and clichés. Now consider this statement: “Our company puts a high priority on safety. This plant has gone five years without a lost-time accident, and we’ve been recognized by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration as one of the safest industrial sites in America.” It’s substantive and powerful.
When we coach clients on their media communication skills, we occasionally have to remind some of them to reduce the amount of information they want to share. The authors of one of our favorite books, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, call this the “curse of knowledge” – the tendency to want to tell everything we know. You’ve probably heard the expression, “If someone asks you what time it is, don’t build them a watch.” Providing too much detail is counterproductive – not only for the audience who’ll struggle to remember what you said, but also for the reporter who must ferret out the core. Recently, we came across a news release that was the entire transcript of a presentation made by several company executives, rather than a summary of their key points. Any guess where that news release ended up when it reached some editor? Responses to reporters’ questions also need to be brief – 6-10 seconds if possible. One way we drive home that point during our workshops is with our trusty stopwatch; we time long answers and through multiple tries, get the client to answer with word economy.
Reporters want good quotes. In fact, they need good quotes – to use as the headline, to use as a direct or indirect quote in the story, to use in bold type as a pull-out quote, or to use as the caption of a photo.
Here are some actual quotes we found in various news and feature stories. Can you spot the winners and losers?
1. “We’re going to stick to our knitting and make the best products. And we think if we do that, we’ve got a very, very good business ahead of us.” (Tim Cook, Apple CEO)
2. “There are times when you must put force at the service of peace.” (Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary-General)
3. “Changing culture is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. It’s very, very hard to affect culture.” (Carol Bartz, former Yahoo CEO)
4. “The China we see now is an exclamation point followed by a question mark.” (Sidney Rittenburg, documentary filmmaker)
If you identified numbers 1 and 3 as weak and numbers 2 and 4 as strong – thought-provoking and memorable – you’re right.
The day after five Dallas police officers were recently shot and killed, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said this about his officers at his press conference, “We don’t feel support most days. Let’s not make this most days.” A powerful quote.
Good quotes are among the most valuable tools in journalism. Serve up a few in your next media statement.
Success with the news media is about control. It’s about making happen what you want to happen, rather than hoping it will happen by itself. Put another way, success with a reporter is about recognizing that there ought to be two agendas – the reporter’s and yours. And although one form of control you’ll never have is the power of editing, if you have a powerful message and package it in ways reporters want it, chances are it will appear in what they print or broadcast.