It’s never Off the Record
When talking with a journalist, it is important to operate under the same definitions and understandings. Everyone knows what an "on-the-record" interview means. The following guide explains other terms used by reporters.
Background: This consists of information and insights given to a journalist to help him or her better understand a complex or sensitive issue. (It is not intended to replace the reporter’s work of gathering and analyzing facts.) "Backgrounders" are not interviews and, thus, are not expected to be published. However, over time, the information is likely to be used (in a publication or broadcast) to help make a complicated article more understandable.
Off the record: This is information that is shared with a reporter during an interview or conversation with the mutual "understanding" that the conversation never took place. Some reporters do not take notes during such meetings to ensure that the information will not find its way into print. In reality, it rarely works this way. Good reporters remember what they have been told, and it influences their reporting. Even worse, unethical reporters may quote you or attribute the remarks to a "source close to…," which knowledgeable people will assume must be you.
Not for attribution: A source uses this definition when he or she wants a reporter to publish or broadcast specific news, but doesn’t want to be held responsible for releasing the information. Government officials or heads of organizations often use this tactic.
Your coalition spokespersons must serve as educators. To fulfill this role, they will need to assess quickly the level of understanding a reporter brings to an interview. Most journalists are generalists; therefore, it is important to begin each interview with a brief discussion to ensure the reporter has all the relevant facts and is up to speed. You might suggest that it would be helpful to provide him or her with a mini-briefing before the interview begins.
If you anticipate using technical terms and names, organizational jargon or acronyms that are not well known, you should compile a list of words and phrases as a reminder to speak in language that the interviewer can easily understand. Be prepared to explain the terms you do use. As an educator, it is your responsibility to put your story into a larger context and perspective. This often means sharing personal insights and experiences with the reporter that give the issue more depth.
The following suggestions are intended to help you participate in a successful interview:
- Learn the basics: Find out who the reporter is and become familiar with the media outlet (i.e., print, TV network, radio station, etc.). Ask what type of interview the reporter is planning (i.e., in person or telephone, live or taped, length of time, anticipated audience, etc.) and what questions you should be prepared to answer. (If the reporter needs specific data and facts, compile this information before the interview.)
- Be prepared: No matter how close a relationship you may have with a reporter, your responsibility is to be prepared for every interview. Take time to organize your thoughts and learn key facts.
- Provide information before the interview: Prior to the interview, send the reporter printed background materials about you, the coalition, PT² and key issues, including any simple graphs or charts you plan to use to make points.
- Be comfortable: If possible, meet where you are comfortable. Make certain you are not interrupted during the period you have agreed to talk. If you are being interviewed at a media outlet, arrive with lots of time to spare. This will allow you to relax and become acclimated to the surroundings.
- Listen to each question: Listen, pause, think and then respond. Be assertive and take control, remembering to deliver your messages in a memorable way. Continue to stress and re-emphasize the key points you want to make -- whether or not the reporter asks the "right" questions.
- Be concise and clear: Give short, concise, direct answers and interject personal terms and local connections whenever possible. Avoid using jargon and remember the reporter’s audience. In an electronic medium such as television or radio, keep your sentences crisp, clear, sharp and to the point -- and use your voice to emote and emphasize key points.
- Correct misinformation immediately: If a question is based on incorrect information or inaccurate facts, begin your answer by stating the correct facts. (Example: "Last year, ridership increased by X percent and expenses grew by X percent, but public funding remained flat…")
- Stay calm and in control: Do not argue with the reporter, do not lose control and do not become defensive. If the reporter asks an offensive or negative question, turn it around and make a positive statement. Do not repeat the negative from the question.
- Be honest and candid: If the interview veers off into an unexpected direction, do not panic. Politely tell the reporter that you are unable to answer questions for which you are not prepared. Tell the truth; it’s OK not to have an answer. Tell the reporter you will have to check and call back. Do not guess or suppose.
- In a crisis, have clear priorities: If you are being contacted about a breaking news report that negatively impacts your coalition or its goals, protect your organization’s long-term image. If possible, obtain the facts before you talk with the reporter. If you are doing a live on-air interview, share the latest information you have with the audience. If the breaking news involves a tragedy, accident or loss of life, show compassion and express concern for those involved. Depending on the breaking news, the priority may be for your coalition to appear human and reasonable to the audience, not defensive and combative.