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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.

·       The reporter says, “The police report says that they made the complaint to you. Is that correct?”

·       The LCCS response is, “We don’t disclose who makes complaints.”

·       Reporter: “I’m just verifying the police report. Are you involved with the situation?”

·       LCCS: “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 verification.”

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.

·       Reporter: “Will you verify that the children’s names are Sue and Joe and that they are 4 and 5?” 

·       LCCS: “Yes, the youngest is 4 but the oldest child is 6.”

·       Reporter: “And their names are Sue and Joe?”

·       LCCS: “We don’t disclose children’s names.”

·       Reporter: “That’s what the police report says.”

·       LCCS–no response. This is not a question.

·       Reporter: “Are the children still in the home?”

·       LCCS: “We do not disclose the specific location of children.”

·       Reporter: “Where are the children?”

·       LCCS: “They are with relatives and we are investigating.”

·       Reporter: “Does that mean they are not with their parents?”

·       LCCS: “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 information.

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 information.

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 their stories.

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:

·       Keep a 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.

·       Read the 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.

·       Never 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.

·       Always give yourself a break between a reporter’s asking a question and your answering it.

This 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 requested.

     If the reporter asks you a question relating to a fact that you are absolutely certain of, just remember this:

·       Once you say it, it is nearly impossible to unsay it.

·       There are few to no second chances to get it right.

·       There is 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 have practiced.

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 doing.

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.)

7.   The reporter asks you what will happen to the children if the parents are convicted.

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