How to Answer When the Media Calls

Whenever the news media calls an organization, be it for-profit or nonprofit, that organization is presented with a golden opportunity to enhance its reputation and say something it wants to say to the people to whom it wants to say it. Any company or nonprofit organization operating in today’s complex society must communicate to a wide range of constituencies, including customers and prospects, employees, the board of directors, suppliers, trustees, the community in which it is located and governments. When the news media calls, it is a safe bet that its audience includes one or more of those constituencies.

Often when the media calls, the news is good or neutral; for example, a reporter needs an expert to comment on a topic or event. If it’s good news, the organization can enhance its reputation, using the story as a platform to present the good news and present some basic messages about its mission and objectives. There is no organization that will not benefit from one of its staff being proclaimed an expert by the news media.

Even when the news is bad, the media is giving your college or university the means to defend itself or give its point of view. The media is going to report the bad news, no matter what. In most cases, it will be in your school’s best interests to tell your side of the story. Even if you can’t give a comment because the subject is confidential or related to a lawsuit, you can at least explain why you can’t comment. When you say“no comment,” the organization comes off as secretive. But when you say why you can’t comment, you evoke empathy, because most people intuitively understand that, oftentimes, constraints exist. They just want to know what the constraints are.

Sometimes the media will call to investigate what they think is bad news but which really isn’t. By responding with accurate information, a college can convince the media not to cover a story or to see the positive. In short, there is never a reason not to respond to the media when they call, as long as you tread carefully. It is all too easy to turn a golden opportunity for positive media coverage into a disaster.

Avoiding Disaster

The way to avoid a media disaster is to control the flow of information to the news media, and the way to control the flow of information is by following what we call the wall-and-gate model of responding.

Conceptually, the wall-and-gate is simple to understand: The wall has a gate. The media can get to the spokesperson, but only if they go through the gatekeeper. The wall-and-gate approach gives the school time to:

• identify the appropriate spokesperson;
• review the questions and situation;
• consider exactly what will be said and not said; and
• make the decision, if necessary, to contact other media.

With the wall-and-gate model, only the gatekeeper or the spokesperson can provide information to the news media. In this way, the institution can avoid situations in which someone says something inaccurate or out of context or two employees or faculty members give contradictory information to a reporter. Besides finding out what the inquiry is about and scheduling an interview, the gatekeeper can answer factual questions and deliver prepared messages. It is left to the spokesperson to handle major interviews or serve as an expert. It is the spokesperson who usually ends up being quoted in the stories that appear.

The gatekeeper should always be a trained public relations or marketing communications professional. The best gatekeeper will analyze the audience that the media outlet will reach and help to develop the messages the institution will make. Depending on the topic, many different spokespersons can represent the institution, including the president, deans and professors.

The wall-and-gate model requires everyone at the university to exercise discipline when the news media call. Whoever receives the call must take the information — including the deadline — and transmit it immediately to the designated gatekeeper. If a potential spokesperson gets the call, he or she must refer the reporter to the gatekeeper, but make sure it is understood that someone will return the call before the deadline. Besides establishing a wall-and-gate model for responding to the news media, there are several other things that an educational institution can do to ensure that interactions with the news media lead to the optimum outcome.

Internalize the Message

• Make sure that everyone knows the model. The model for responding to the media should be part of the policies and procedures of the institution. And as with all policies and procedures, it does the organization no good to have them if the staff doesn’t know about them.
• Develop messages you will always make. No matter what the topic might be, there are certain messages about the school and its mission that you will want all spokespersons to make. Develop those messages in advance and give a copy of them to every spokesperson before every interview.
• Train potential spokespersons. For faculty members who will likely only be quoted as experts and therefore in very positive situations, training can probably consist of an hour’s review of the wall-and-gate model and some basic tips for answering interview questions. It is wise to have the school president, deans and other potential administrative spokespersons undergo a more extensive media training course that includes responding in crisis situations.
• Meet the deadline. Reporters have a job to do, usually under intense time constraints. Meeting the reporter’s deadline, or telling the reporter as soon as possible that you can’t meet it, helps the reporter to do his or her job.
• Share the information that can be disclosed. Just because an organization can’t say everything doesn’t mean it can’t say anything. On the other hand, no organization is obligated to reveal information that is harmful, proprietary or confidential. Determining what information to share and when to disclose it is perhaps the key question in any communications decision.

By implementing a wall-and-gate model, a school can respond to news media inquiries, confident that it will be improving the school’s standing or, at the very least, ensuring that its side of a negative story will be told. Positive coverage will help to establish that the school benefits the community and will create goodwill that will help it maintain its stature with all the constituencies it values.

Marc Jampole is principal of Jampole Communications, a Pittsburgh-based public relations and advertising agency that has provided public relations counsel and services to a wide variety of organizations, including five universities. Reach him at 412/471-2463 or [email protected]