News reporters are human beings who have a difficult job. Public officials have a tough job, but don’t always appear to be human. The divide stems from a failure to communicate.
Here are a few rules for candidates and public officials in dealing with the press:
Return all legitimate press calls
News reporters are always on deadline, so a failure to call back will make you look like you are avoiding a situation. Second, do it yourself. Never have an aide or lackey call the reporter back, unless it is simply to schedule some time. Nothing infuriates a reporter more than to have to get information from the second bozo.
Always be honest
Let’s face it, some facts are not positive. If you find a line of questioning distasteful, go on background. The term “background” is used so that the reporter will not use the name of the person giving the information. But there are a few caveats.
When going on background, make sure the reporter agrees that you are on background. You must have a verbal commitment. Saying, “this is on background,” and then spilling your guts is “on the record.” It is your job to get an agreement.
If during a background conversation the reporter wants to put you on the record, they will ask and you can decide whether you want to be quoted. The advantage of background is that it allows a conversation to occur without a subject having to be careful about their words.
Be clear about what’s “off the record”
Off the record differs from background, in that a reporter cannot use the contents of your remarks in any way. The reporter can get the story from other places, but no information you give should be used.
Reporters hate “off the record” conversations. (Editor’s note: Nodding head.) Again, they must be agreed to in advance. Many reporters will not go off the record with public figures. Understand this concept. Many a client has complained to me that they were “off the record” when there was no agreement from the reporter. There must be an agreement, otherwise everything is on the record.
Some people will say reporters are never your friend. This is not true. But don’t confuse friendship with a reporter doing his or her job. If your best friend is a policeman, you shouldn’t tell them about all the laws you plan to break later that evening. So it is with a reporter.
If you socialize with reporters, go off the record for the duration. In those cases, they are usually happy to do it. They don’t want to work in their off-hours, either. But make sure you get the agreement. They will understand.
Understand that no matter what you say, or how convincing your story, the reporter has an obligation to get another view. Thus, read or look at the story in its entirety before you start worrying about a quote from your political enemy. Remember that the reporter’s job is not to report the “truth.” It is about being accurate and that is the standard by which their story must be judged.
In the final analysis, there will be good stories and bad ones. The worst story is one that appears without comment. In that case, the public will judge silence as an admission. So, unless advised by your attorney, return the call, be honest and appreciate that you live in a world where there is a free press—even when their accuracy jives with your truth.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.