For a professional, being regularly quoted in the media as an expert in your field has obvious benefits. It raises your own and your firm’s profile, it provides new business opportunities and it reassures your clients that they have hired one of the best.
For journalists, credible experts are vital, especially when writing on business or technical issues. They enable journalists to understand the context and importance of an event or development, take on board a variety of views, and provide their readers or audience with some added-value insight. More prosaically, expert commentators help overstretched journalists hit their word-count and/or fill airtime.
So it is a mutually useful relationship. But there many ways a would-be media commentator can get it wrong. Here are eight of them:
1. Wait for the phone to ring.
I’m an expert in my field, so journalists will hear about me and contact me for my views...
Unlikely. If you have a role where your views and actions can directly change markets, regulations or policies (such as a government minister or the chief executive of a major company) then journalists will queue up for your comments. But journalists rarely have the time to track down expert commentators. You need to contact them – either directly or via your firm’s PR team or agency – explaining the news, its potential impact and why it matters to the journalist’s readers/audience.
2. Ensure you have all the information.
It is dangerous talking to a journalist unprepared, so it is vital I take time to research all the details first...
The problem with waiting until you have all the facts is that you risk missing the best opportunities entirely. Stories are written within hours – sometimes minutes – of a new development breaking. A journalist is usually looking for high-level contextual comment rather than detail: why the new development matters; what might be the implications; what could happen next. There may be opportunities to follow up with issues that may have been overlooked in the initial news stories, but for a breaking news story, speed trumps detailed knowledge. This of course, comes with a degree of risk, which is why media training can be helpful for avoiding the pitfalls.
3. Get straight on the telephone.
Surely this is the best way for me to get a journalist’s attention...
It may get their attention, but they may not always thank you for the interruption. Most journalists I talk to say that unless you are bringing them a genuinely important (in their eyes!) and time sensitive news story, they would rather be sent an email with some outline comments and offering an interview – especially when they are on a deadline. Use the phone sparingly.
4. Send over plenty of detail and links.
The more information I provide more helpful I am being...
For an in-depth feature article, this may sometimes be the case, but if you are reacting to a breaking news story, what the journalist really needs is a few ‘quotable quotes’. They have little time for digging. Test ‘quotable’ by trying to imagine your words featuring in the context of a news story: do they ring true? In writing a news story, the journalist will use their own words to set out what has happened. Your quotes should focus on why it has happened and the wider implications. Short and pithy is best.
5. Contact lots of journalists.
I am bound to get traction somewhere...
Up to a point, but it is important to know something about the media/publications and the journalists you are contacting. Is this an issue you know they are likely to write about? What is their audience and are you pitching your ideas in a way that relates to their audience? What are their deadlines? Journalists tell me they get hundreds of emails every day, many of which are irrelevant or of marginal interest. (Even more than the rest of us do.) Rather than a scatter-gun approach, it is better to select just those journalists who are likely to be interested in what you have to say and tailor your comments to them.
6. Ensure you are in complete control.
I’ll need sign off to ensure I’m not misquoted...
Few journalists and publications will show you the article or the quotes they plan to use in advance of publishing. In part this is due to the impracticalities caused by publishing deadlines, but many will have also had bad experiences of interviewees getting cold feet about what they said and wanting to water-down their comments. You can always askabout seeing quotes in advance – quite reasonable on a highly technical matter – but demanding to see quotes is not a way to make friends with journalists. A degree of trust is required and expecting sign-off on quotes will make them less keen on talking with you in the future. It is similar with requesting changes/corrections after publication. Important factual errors – yes; but think hard before demanding changes simply because you don’t like the way your quotes are used or because you feel the article or the headline could be misconstrued. Journalists/editors dislike changing stories (even online) and will not do so unless there are strong justifications.
7. Be available on your own terms.
I’m extremely busy and I have to put my client commitments first...
Which is true, but some nimble responsiveness is essential for regular media commentators. Media work does not necessarily take up a lot of time, but it is often at short notice and inevitably inconvenient. Journalists often return to the same experts again and again not because of their expertise or because say the most interesting things, but because they are available and dependable.
8. Wait for the phone to ring (again).
They used my quote so now I'm on their radar for commenting on similar issues...
Sometimes this happens, but good media relations is about building relationships over time. Keep on sending ideas and comments. Journalists are unlikely always to pick up on them, but if your comments are relevant and good, you will stay top of mind as a potential expert commentator – as someone with interesting views who is willing to express them publicly. Over time, journalists may well start contacting you directly for comment.
Bruce Wraight is Director at Infinite Global. He is based in London.