Public Relations for Startups Continued
Terms of Engagement
Before talking to the reporter, be sure to have an understanding of the rules of engagement. A reporter’s aim in life is to find out as much as possible, and you should think of talking to a reporter as talking directly to the public. You always should understand the context in which you are being interviewed:
On-the-record: As long as the reporter identifies himself as a reporter, the assumption is that everything is “on the record.” On-the-record means that your name and everything that you say can be reported.
Off-the-record: In some cases, the interview or part of it may be “off-the-record.” The meaning of off-the-record is less precise, and you should not assume that you have the same understanding of it that the reporter has. Sometimes, off-the-record means that your name will not be disclosed; other times, it means that you will not be quoted. It is a good idea to clarify what off-the-record means if there is any doubt. When you provide information that is not to be quoted, the reporter should put down any writing instruments and turn off any tape recorder. In addition to reducing the chance that an off-the-record comment will be published accidentally, this action serves as a signal that the reporter acknowledges the off-record status of the comment.
Background information: “For background only” means that the information you provide is simply to educate the reporter. If such information is included in a news story, it usually will not be attributed to the source. One should clarify with the reporter to what extent the source will be revealed. For example, rather than using your name the reporter may attribute the information to “a company executive.”
You may want to tape the interview if it will cover some sensitive topics. Get the consent of the reporter before doing so. If you are concerned about being misquoted, you can ask the reporter to read back any quotes before they are published. In most cases, they will do so if you ask and if they have the time. However, don’t expect the reporter to show you the story before it is run; some sources would want to edit everything if they viewed it before publication. In the interest of professionalism most reporters will not show the story beforehand. Misquotes may be a concern, but that is a risk that you take when you agree to be interviewed. You can manage the process to minimize errors and show your company in its best light, but do not attempt to control the process. Reporters like to feel independent and don’t like to be pushed or manipulated.
There are times when a source says something that is published out of context. You should be very thoughtful about everything you say, realizing that it could be taken out of context. Be careful about making a joke; it might become the headline. If a mistake is made, you can ask for a timely publication of a correction, but most of the damage already would have been done. If you feel that there is a serious error, it might be a good idea to set up a meeting with the reporter and editor to discuss it.
Newspapers tend to be reporter-driven, decentralized organizations. The business side is quite different from the news operations, and executives of the company usually do not pretend that they are journalists. One part of the organization has little influence over the other parts. Sometimes editors will suggest a story, but most ideas come from the reporters. Therefore, your key relationships will be with the reporters who cover stories related to your topic. If a reporter thinks that something is newsworthy, he will convince the editor to let him cover it.
Contacting the Press
When contacting the press with a specific news item, be aware of the deadlines, which may arrive sooner than you anticipate. Make sure that the names of the people and their titles are up-to-date. If you contact a former reporter who now is performing some other job function, your message may be ignored.