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Dealing With the Media

You'll probably have to deal with reporters from time to time. Here are guidelines on how to handle them

5 min read

”Dealing With the Media?” What kind of article is that for an engineering magazine? Well, at some point in your career you'll probably need to have this soft skill--to explain, defend, or promote a project to your boss, a reporter, or your company's communications manager. Do this job well, and you'll have a lot of opportunities to do your main job better. Do it badly at a critical point, and you could put your career in jeopardy.

Let me suggest a few guidelines and share some examples from my engineering career.

First, make sure you are authorized to talk with the media. Learn to work with public relations pros, in your company and in the private sector, to develop media strategies, press kits, and so forth. Alert them whenever a reporter calls. Reporters often go straight to the source--you--even if they learned of a piece of news from your PR reps.

When reporters call, ask whether they're on deadline. The media usually operate on short deadlines--often reporters need information immediately for next-day publication or to update Web stories. If so, try to provide as much information as you can right away; you can always supply more later. The reporter will appreciate that courtesy.

Regard reporters as professionals--at least until they prove otherwise--even though they didn't go to engineering school. Find out what they need. Explain things in layman's terms, avoiding jargon. Tell them what's unique and newsy, what will be accomplished, and whatever else is interesting about the project. The reporters may or may not specialize in covering technology, but in any case they will generally need considerable help to understand what you're doing. Ask them to read back the story to you, especially the key technical details; you rarely get to review an article before it's published, but you should at least ask.

Learn how to write a press release. We engineers have our tech memos; the media rely on press releases. And we engineers can improve the clarity of our writing by including journalism's ”five Ws” in the first sentences: the who, what, when, where, and why of the story.

Prepare for an interview. Bone up on the matter at hand, control your nervousness, and be concise. Never fudge or guess at an answer; it's much better just to say you don't know. You can't just keep on saying that, though, because it would call your expertise into question, so instead tell the reporter that you want to be sure to give an absolutely correct answer, and therefore you'll call back later.

”No comment” is the most damaging phrase you can utter. If you're dealing with a crisis or any other difficult subject, tell the reporter you'll call back later; then work with your PR and legal departments to craft a written statement--and stick to it.

Identify the frequently asked questions for your subject, and prepare answers for each. An engineer recently asked me how to get ready for a difficult presentation to a local audience that was hostile to his project. I told him to anticipate the toughest questions and prepare answers, even if the audience was not going to like them. If you duck a tough question, your credibility will be at risk for the entire story.

Develop contact information for tech publications and for technology reporters working for the general media. This will be useful when you want to promote your projects or yourself. Keep the reporters on your list updated on projects, even on developments you suspect aren't newsy: let the reporters be the judge of whether it's worth covering. Invite them in to inspect your projects if you've got something for them to see.

Don't forget the local media. Even if you can't interest the big national media in your work, the local media may well appreciate your calls. They know that their readers care about what's happening in their own backyard. Don't be shy: publicize your talks and other achievements, such as getting promotions.

Look your best for the TV cameras. Get guidance on how to dress and groom yourself; don't depend on the TV folks to do the job for you. Generally, women should use extra makeup, modest jewelry, long sleeves, and high necks. Men should avoid heavily patterned ties and shirts. And always bring powder, a handkerchief, or both to a TV interview. You don't want a shiny forehead to distract viewers from what you're saying.

Following are three of my experiences with the media; I'll call them ”the good,” ”the bad,” and ”the ugly.” Perhaps you can see whether I followed the above guidelines.

The good experience occurred two years ago, when I got a call from ”ABC World News Tonight,” inviting me to appear on a segment marking the 100th anniversary of aviation, to comment on Boeing's pending decision about whether to undertake the new 787 Dreamliner aircraft. (I suggested Boeing should go ahead, and the plane has been a big success!) I easily could have passed on the interview opportunity--it was not my main area of expertise--but something told me to take a risk, have some fun, and get some publicity for Cooper Union, the New York City college that is my alma mater and where I teach. I was told that the interview went well, and I anxiously waited to see the program, having alerted my family and friends. Well, with the media, expect the unexpected: Saddam Hussein was captured the morning of my program, and my piece was canceled. Lesson: you can always get bumped by breaking news.

Now for the bad experience. One day a colleague came into my office and asked me to talk to a reporter who had left a message for him. ”I can't call him back,” my colleague told me. ”I'll get in trouble.” When I called the reporter on my colleague's behalf, the reporter was immediately suspicious and asked about the switch. ”Well, to be honest with you, he's scared to talk to reporters--I'm not sure why,” I said. ”So, how can I help you, and are you on deadline?” I was able to handle his call, and the reporter and I became professional friends. Lesson: always respond to reporters' inquiries, even if only by leaving a message that asks about the subject of the interview and promises that you'll get back.

My ugly media experience came when I was struggling to gain riders for my new airport shuttle so it could reach the break-even point in its first year. To get publicity, we contacted a newspaper that was widely read in the airport's market area. The reporter came by, and we talked at length about the project, its bene fits, and its potential. However, the reporter pegged the story to the financial insecurity of the airport shuttle--something that would trouble travelers who need dependable transportation to the airport. We expressed our displeasure to the newspaper. In the end, though, the airport shuttle survived the unfavorable coverage and is still running. Lesson: reporters may be friendly, but they're never your friends. Assume nothing; they often have their own agendas.

More the norm was my relationship with the transportation reporter for The Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest newspaper. After the reporter covered one of my projects early in my career, he called me from time to time for information on stories. On one occasion, he accepted my invitation to speak at our professional society meeting on the topic of ”Dealing With the Media.”

Catchy title, huh?

About the Author

Carl Selinger is an aviation and transportation consultant and the author of Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School: Skills for Success in the Real World (Wiley-IEEE Press). For more information, see https://www.carlselinger.com.

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