Taking Calls From Reporters:
How hard could it be to take a call from a
reporter? You talk to all sorts of people every day about all sorts of
important issues. Yet, getting a call from a reporter is, for most people,
usually not accompanied by a sense of calm and being in control. The Chinese
symbol for crisis comes to mind: danger and opportunity. Learning to recognize
the potential danger that the call poses while appreciating the opportunity it
offers is a skill that takes practice, patience, and persistence. Of course,
getting good at it does not necessarily mean that you will eliminate negative
news. It does mean that you will be able to deliver the message you want, in
the way the reporter needs it, so that the public can be assured that your
agency is upholding its end of the bargain to keep our children safe.
Responding to the media honestly,
confidently, and appropriately requires careful thought and planning. It is
never a time to talk off the top of your head, say whatever comes to mind, or
wing it. Alternatively, it also is not the time to throw it all out there and
simply let the reporter pick-and-choose from everything you say.
Taking reporter’s calls requires some
advanced guidelines. First, there is information that you never disclose. For
example, LCCS never discloses the identity of the person making the complaint.
reporter says, “The police report says that they made the complaint to
you. Is that correct?”
response is, “We don’t disclose who makes complaints.”
“I’m just verifying the police report. Are you involved with the
“Yes, we are investigating, but we do not verify reports from other
organizations or disclose the identity of people making complaints. If you have
external verification such as a police report, which is a public record, we can
comment-but we cannot comment unless you have that type of prior
Neither does LCCS disclose the names or
specific locations of children. The agency will disclose the children’s ages
and whether they are with relatives or in foster care. Saying that the child is
with relatives may or may not mean that the child is still with his parents.
“Will you verify that the children’s names are Sue and Joe and that they
are 4 and 5?”
“Yes, the youngest is 4 but the oldest child is 6.”
“And their names are Sue and Joe?”
“We don’t disclose children’s names.”
“That’s what the police report says.”
response. This is not a question.
“Are the children still in the home?”
“We do not disclose the specific location of children.”
“Where are the children?”
“They are with relatives and we are investigating.”
“Does that mean they are not with their parents?”
“We don’t disclose the specific location of children.”
Yes, the process can be tedious. Nonetheless,
knowing your agency’s guidelines in advance better assures that you will be
consistent from call to call and that you will not inadvertently disclose
information that your agency does not want disclosed.
For use when responding to the media, develop
two lists. In the first list, specify the types of information that your agency
will not disclose to the public, will not share with a reporter. Be sure to
carefully think through exactly why you will not disclose that type of
Second, develop a listing of the specific
types of information you will share with reporters and disclose to the public.
Carefully think through exactly why it is acceptable to disclose each type of
With what you will and will not disclose
firmly in mind, the guiding principal when taking a call from a reporter is:
Choose to Participate.
Understanding that the public expects you to
be accountable, choosing to participate in news stories gives the public a
prime opportunity to see what you have done or not done and the reasons why. If
you choose not to participate, the story will still be told, except your
agency’s perspective, your side of the story, will be missing. Reporters want
and need your participation but they certainly do not have to have it to write
When a reporter does call and you, of course,
take the call, keep these points in mind from the moment you pick up the phone
until you hang it up:
written record of each call, including the date and time of the call, the
reporter’s name, the specific media outlet, exact questions asked, the
reporter’s current deadline; and the reporter’s direct phone number.
questions asked back to the reporter to make sure you heard them correctly,
confirm the reporter’s deadline, and assure the reporter that you will call him
back before his deadline.
answer a reporter’s question during the initial call unless you are absolutely
sure you have all of the facts and that your answer is true, without
qualification or conditions.
give yourself a break between a reporter’s asking a question and your answering
practice equally applies to both print and broadcast media. Do not agree to a
live or recorded radio or television interview unless the reporter tells you,
in advance, what questions he will be asking. You need time to research the
situation and prepare a response. Reporters understand that. If a reporter will
not accept that condition, politely decline the interview, offering to be
interviewed later when you have had time to check on the information the
reporter is requesting.
If, while on the phone or during a radio or
TV interview, the reporter asks you a new or follow-up question, do not respond
unless you are absolutely sure that your answer is true, without qualification
or conditions. Otherwise, tell him that you will get back to him with an answer
just as soon as you have had an opportunity to check on the information being
the reporter asks you a question relating to a fact that you are absolutely
certain of, just remember this:
say it, it is nearly impossible to unsay it.
are few to no second chances to get it right.
no acceptable substitute for getting it right the first time.
If your agency has more than one designated
spokesperson, discuss the reporters questions and practice your responses with
each other before calling the reporter back. Role-play, with the other person
playing the reporter. Along with practicing your answers, it gives you an
opportunity to anticipate follow-up questions the reporter may ask. If you have
pre-planned your answers to those follow-up questions, you can give your
answers to the reporter, if he does in fact ask the follow-up questions you
This role-playing gives you a real person
with whom to practice your response. Just as importantly, it will also help
your agency to be consistent in case a second reporter, from a different media
outlet or even the same media outlet, calls the other spokesperson with the
same or related question.
Now, call the reporter back before his
deadline. In order to get your message and your response into the news article,
you must call the reporter back in media time.
When you do return the call, only answer the
questions the reporter asked during the original call. Additionally, make sure
that you read your answer exactly as you practiced. Say, “When you called,
you asked . The answer to your question is .”
If the reporter asks the same question again
but in different words, stick with your original answer and simply repeat it.
If during the call, the reporter falls silent, resist the temptation to fill
the silence with any comments. Just remember that silence is one of the oldest
and most used interviewing techniques. Most people start talking to fill the
silence. You never do that, not even small talk. Quietly wait until the next
question is asked.
Always thank the reporter for calling.
Remember that you did not do him a favor by answering his questions. Rather, he
gave you an opportunity to communicate with the public and he did not have to
do that. Also, make sure to let him know that it is fine for him to call you
back if he has additional questions. Naturally, if he does call back, start the
process over again. Write down his new questions and tell him you will get back
with him before his deadline.
When the story is published, clip it and
attach it to your notes related to the specific call. Over time, you will
develop a media library, including questions, answers, and stories showing how
your responses were reported. This gives you a good source of data for quality
review and an opportunity to improve the consistency and focus of your future
contacts with the same or other reporters.
Now, suppose that a reporter calls you and
wants to know if you are involved with a particular family. In reading the
police report to you, the reporter relates that police received a complaint
from a neighbor. The neighbor indicated that three young children were running
about unkempt and unsupervised. Upon arriving and entering the apartment,
police encountered a pungent smell. Subsequently, the parents were arrested for
drug possession and child endangering. In the report, police say they are
referring the matter to child protective services.
Below are some typical questions a reporter
might ask about this situation. Consider what your responses might be, keeping
in mind that one-sentence responses are best. That way, the reporter will be
more likely to fully quote what you say instead of picking-and-choosing from
what you say.
1. The first question the reporter asks is,
“Are you involved with the family?”
2. The reporter reads to you the part of the
police record where the officer writes that he referred the incident to your agency.
The reporter asks for confirmation.
3. The reporter asks if your agency has had
previous involvement with this family.
4. The reporter asks you how the children are
5. The reporter asks you if the agency will
remove the children from the home.
6. The reporter asks you if, in your experience,
this type of situation is unusual. (Keep in mind that the parents have been
charged but not convicted.)
reporter asks you what will happen to the children if the parents are