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Media Relations with Bob: Dealing With Aggressive Reporters

Each month for the next year, PRAL’s Bob Johannessen, will offer tips to help members improve their media relation skills. From deciding whether or not to schedule an interview to building trust with the journalists who cover your industry, this column will answer members’ questions with time-tested strategies to help you make the most of each media opportunity.

When dealing with tough issues and aggressive reporters, sometimes I just want to ignore a reporter’s call altogether. Is there any risk in doing so?

Yes, it is very risky to avoid a reporter who is seeking a comment for a difficult story. Here’s why:

You can be sure the reporter is working on a story and it will get reported. Avoiding the call assures one, two or both of these outcomes, none of which are good for you or you organizations.

First, if you don’t talk, the reporter will find someone else to talk, someone else to tell your story. You can be sure that someone else is not looking out for your interests. You can then also expect the reporter to write, “The company did not respond to a request for comment.” 

When this appears, the reader/viewer will assume you are guilty of the accusations. Your silence will lead your audience to conclude that you must be hiding something. At the very least, refusing to comment lends credibility to those making the charges. Unless there are extreme circumstances involved, it’s always better to find a way to respond to the inquiry than to pretend it’s not happening.

It is also likely that the reporter will include a comment from the other source AND note your unwillingness to comment. A double whammy to you and your company’s reputation.

These calls don’t come out of the blue. When your organization is involved in an issue of concern to others, an issue that is controversial, that includes a protest or allegations, not only should you expect a call, you should be prepared with a response. 

I know these conversations often are not pleasant. But if you ignore the call, consider what that says about you and your organization. In addition to the perception you have something to hide, refusing to comment lends credibility to those making the charges. Its’ always better to find a way to respond to the inquiry than to pretend it’s not happening.

You should protect against allowing allegations to stand without a response as the facts of the story can get repeated every time another story is written about you, your issue, or your organization. When bad information is allowed to take root, it can quickly become a negative narrative that can frame public perception well into the future.

Not responding will also damage your reputation and your relationship with the reporter for the future. Avoiding a tough call makes it more difficult to be perceived as open and honest, and it will guarantee that you won’t get as receptive a response as you’d like when you need to pitch a story to that reporter.

Instead, always return the call promptly and try to find a way to address the reporter’s needs. Offer a written statement, review and respond to written questions, or have an informed third party speak for you. You can also find a creative way to say “No comment” without actually using these words.

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