It took place shortly after the Deepwater Horizon crisis: engineers at a local university began receiving calls from a reporter asking for their comments on the situation. While the university included a drilling department, the school was not directly related to the incident. So, why were the school’s engineers receiving calls?

As it turned out, in the wake of the spill, a reporter had found a list of contact information for engineers in the drilling department at the school, and was going through the list and speaking to whoever would answer the phone. The reporter’s intent was to create a story based upon these engineers’ responses – even though these people’s statements were in no way representative of the university’s official position on the tragedy.

The situation was admittedly a tricky one, but unsolicited media inquiries are not uncommon. And that begs a question that employees at every organization need to consider: when a reporter calls, should you answer the phone?

Why Answering the Phone is Tempting

For some people, the answer seems obvious. After all, everybody enjoys recognition. When the phone rings with a reporter on the other end of the line, taking the time to speak with them seems like an easy route to getting your opinion (and maybe even your face) on the evening news. Admittedly, that can be tempting.

Ego isn’t the only thing at play, though. Often, people just want to be helpful, or they think that speaking with a reporter will provide publicity for their organization. And there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

The Risk of Unqualified Spokespeople

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as bad publicity, and it generally comes from one of two places: a crisis related to your organization, or a media interaction that is managed poorly. In the most unfortunate scenarios, these two factors work together.

That’s because, during a crisis, press and employee interactions pose the risk that the organization comes to be represented by the words of one person – and that’s a big problem if that one person is not trained to communicate with the media, or if they have a personal viewpoint that falls outside of organizational acceptance.

So, how can your organization avoid this risk? Let’s take a look.

Three Steps to Managing Media Inquiries

1. Develop Protocol to Respond to Media Inquiries

The first step is to develop a protocol for media communication. This will be invaluable when the media come knocking at your organization’s doors.

What goes into developing a protocol? We’ve written about this before, but it may involve designating spokespeople who will be prepared to communicate officially on behalf of the organization. It will likely also involve setting standards for addressing media inquiries on platforms like social media, the organizational website, and other channels.

Once the protocol to respond to media inquiries is in place, the next step is to follow it.

2. Follow the Protocol

It may sound easy, but following the protocol you have in place takes discipline on an organizational level.

To help promote adherence, when a situation arises, remind people of the protocol through whatever means you have – from social media, to text, email, or a company website. Acknowledge the media inquiries, and remind employees that there is a system in place for your organization to address them. If you’d prefer employees not to speak with the media, let them know.

And, offer them prepared responses to media inquiries. Have them get the name and number of the reporter, and say that they’ll relay the inquiry to the appropriate party.

Remember, though: you can’t tell an employee not to speak to the media – just that you prefer that they don’t.

3. Understand Your Organization’s Responsibility to Respond

With a protocol in place, you can help to prevent an unqualified spokesperson from representing your organization. Sometimes, though, you may need to ask: is it worth it for your organization to respond at all?

To illustrate this question, let’s take a look at the experiences of a local school employee who found herself thrust into a national spotlight. Here’s what happened.

When President Obama was elected, he gave an address to American schoolchildren. Like any action involving politics, this one elicited different reactions from different people. Some parents of students wanted their children to watch the President’s speech in school, while others didn’t want the speech to be shown in schools at all.

The communication employee at one school received a call from a reporter at a local paper asking for a comment on the situation. The employee said that the interesting thing was that some parents were threatening to take their kids out of school.

She was stating a fact, but her comment was published, and it quickly picked up steam on a national level. In a short matter of time, she was getting calls to her private phone from national networks like CNN, NBC, ABC, and more.

Was she – or was her school – responsible to respond to the barrage of inquiries?

The answer? No – neither the employee nor her school needed to respond. Engaging with the story may have kept it burning and prolonged its life. Additionally, neither the employee nor her school wanted to deal with all of the attention surrounding the situation. For those reasons, instead of picking up the phone when national networks called, they let the phones ring.

How to Make the Decision

So, when a reporter calls, should you pick up the phone? Here’s the bottom line: before you respond to media inquiries, be sure to consider whether or not there is a benefit to your organization being involved with the story. Does engaging with the media serve your stakeholders (students, employees, etc.)? If the answer is no, then engagement isn’t necessary.

That’s why you (sometimes) don’t answer the phone when reporters call. Sure, it’s tempting to offer opinions in hopes of getting on the news – but sometimes no response is the right response.

Want to learn more about properly dealing with the media? We have decades of experience in training organizations and their spokespeople to communicate well – and we can help your employees understand when a response isn’t necessary. Get in touch with us online, or at 281-240-2026 to find out how we can help your organization.