When Am I 'On the Record' With a Journalist?

Flickr Photo by William Murphy

Flickr Photo by William Murphy

When preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an interview, you invariably spend time coaching them on what to say and how to act when the camera is rolling or when the reporter is scribbling notes.

But do you also prep them for what to do when the “on air” light is off or when the reporter closes the notebook?

If you aren’t, you’re overlooking a crucial detail — one that can lead to some unfortunate headlines.

That’s because everything that happens during that encounter — from the moment you say hello to the moment you’re out of sight — is considered on the record. In other words, every statement you make can end up being reported.

To be sure, there are times when you can mutually agree to go off the record (and we’ll get into the mechanics of going off the record in a future post). But unless you deliberately take that step, you should keep in mind that you’re “on”.

As a result, if you’re preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an appearance or interview, it’s important that you take the time to let that person know what that means.

Unfortunately, a seemingly private comment about a cranky board member or an off-color joke is fair game — and it could end up working its way into a story.

Claiming after the fact that you didn’t know that the statement was made off camera or after the formal interview doesn’t cut it. By law — and by practice — journalists assume that you know the rules and they are often looking for well-schooled sources to say something candid or off the cuff.

This shouldn’t scare you away from doing interviews. It just means you need to act and speak deliberately.

Here is some advice on how you should prepare for some common situations:

Meetings with print media journalists

When I worked as a writer for newspapers and magazines, I often unearthed some great information after I closed my notebook at the end of a formal interview.

Often, as a source and I would exchange informal chitchat and discuss next steps, the source — feeling more relaxed — would offer some interesting perspectives or anecdotes that added to the story I was pursuing or gave me an idea for another piece.

My practice would typically be to say “I’d like to use that, do you mind if I follow up or ask you more about it now?”

Almost always, the source would agree to share more information.

But even if the source didn’t want to share more, there wasn’t much they could do about what they had already said — other than refuse to take additional questions about it or attempt to steer the conversation in another direction.

When meeting with a print reporter — a term that, for the sake of this piece, includes those who write articles for newspapers, magazines or the web — there is typically a period of time before and after the formal interview where you exchange greetings and goodbyes.

Make sure you reinforce this point with your organization’s representative ahead of the interview — and let that person know that the entire conversation is on the record.

If the representative has concerns, offer some potential topics of conversation that they can bring up during these more informal portions of the interview — and discuss some things they should avoid saying or doing.

Television, radio and digital media

Recent history is littered with examples of politicians and celebrities who have gotten themselves in hot water for saying something that was picked up by a ‘hot mic’.

President Donald Trump, one assumes, likely wishes he had kept his mouth shut when he was engaging in “locker room talk” with Billy Bush on that Access Hollywood tour bus. Same goes for Robert Durst, who was caught on microphone talking to himself about his role in a high-profile series of murders during the taping of a documentary series.

The lesson for nonprofit communicators is simple — if you’re going on television or on the radio, assume that everything you say is getting picked up on a microphone, even if you’re not technically “on air”.

Even if the camera does not appear to be rolling or the radio segment has gone to commercial, you should assume the audio is being recorded and that anything you say can be picked up and used later.

Again, it’s important to emphasize this point to representatives from your organization who are not experienced with on-air interviews to be sure that they are aware of the ground rules and are well prepared.

Social media

Finally, it’s worth noting that comments you make on social media — whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or another source — are also “on the record.” Increasingly, media outlets are quoting statements made by individuals on the social networks in their reporting.

As a result, it’s important for officials at your organization to recognize this fact and to be careful about what they post and what they comment on.

If you wouldn’t want what you said on Facebook to appear in your local newspaper or on the TV news, it’s probably best not to say it at all.


Note: I originally wrote this post for Nonprofit Marketing Guide, where I serve as a regular advisor on media relations for nonprofits.

PR Pickup Lines: How to Start a Relationship With Your Favorite Reporter

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Flare

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Flare

When was the last time you reached out to a reporter without a story to pitch?

If you’re like many nonprofit communicators, you might be straining to answer this question because it’s been a long time.

This is especially true if your role isn’t exclusively focused on media relations. If your work also involves some combination of social media, marketing, speechwriting, fundraising solicitations, event planning, blogging, and managing the production of your annual report, it’s hard to carve out the time to actually build relationships with reporters and editors.

As a result, your media relations work largely focuses on sending out news releases. Often at the last minute.

And, often, you send those releases out of obligation or habit — not because you think they are actually going to result in a media hit.

But if you care about getting better coverage for your organization, I’d like to try to break this cycle by giving you an assignment.

I’d like you to try to pick up a reporter.

Of course, I don’t mean this in the get-a-number-and-let’s-go-out context.

What I’m suggesting is much more, let’s say, professionally correct.

The first step is to identify a reporter who works for a news outlet that reaches a key audience for your nonprofit. Ideally, it’s a reporter who you’ve been thinking that you should build a relationship with. 

Now here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to pitch a story with your initial outreach.

Instead, you’re simply going to introduce yourself or your organization to that reporter — and make it clear that you’re there to help.

That’s it.

You’re not going to try to sell him a story idea or get her to come to your annual dinner.

You’re simply aiming to start a relationship that will eventually evolve into a story or an invite or an interview.

How do you do this?

It’s easier than you might think.

Ideally, you want to start the relationship by sending the reporter or editor three important signals:

  1. You follow and respect his or her work.
  2. You or your organization can be a resource in future reporting.
  3. You’re not looking to simply pitch stories — you want to be a partner.

The first step in this process involves a bit of legwork.

You actually have to spend a little bit of time getting to know the journalist’s work. Go online and look at recent stories he or she has covered. Pay attention to the themes they cover and the examples they cite.

Next, think about how you can help.

Perhaps it’s by providing them with background data or a report. Perhaps it’s by having them get to know your executive director. Perhaps it’s by offering to connect them with a partner organization that does similar work.

The next step takes a bit of courage.

Send that reporter an introductory email or note.

If you don’t know where to start, let me give you a few suggested “pickup lines” or openers:

  • “I’ve enjoyed following your coverage of nonprofits for the XYZ Gazette and wanted to offer my organization as a resource to you for future stories …”
  • “Your recent piece on state budget cuts is an important one for our community because it will likely reduce the amount of aid to nonprofit organizations. As you continue to report on this story, I’m happy to put you in touch with some local experts who can add perspective …”
  • “I followed with interest your recent series on Medicaid. Since you’re interested in this topic, I thought I’d pass along a 2016 study by the ABC Institute that includes some projections that might interest you in future reporting …”

It doesn’t have to be fancy or too in-depth. It simply needs to start a conversation.

Chances are, you’ll get a reply.

And with that reply will come an opportunity to take that budding relationship to the next level.

It might not pay off immediately, but in time that relationship has the potential to develop into one where you become a trusted resource for that reporter.

The 5 Keys to Connecting with Gen Z

If you’re a Gen-Xer or Baby Boomer who has spent the past several years trying to figure out how to communicate with Millennials, it’s time to start reckoning with another challenge — Gen Z.

Gen Zers are still young — ages 12 to 21 — but they’re coming of age quickly.

And, as was recently explained to me, they are decidedly unMillennial.

That insight came during a recent interview with Marcie Merriman, Executive Director, Cultural Relevancy and Brand Strategy, Ernst & Young.

As Marcie was talking about the characteristics, preferences and habits of Gen Z, she made a point that really caught my attention.

“This generation loves story,” she said. “If you think about success of the musical ‘Hamilton,’ well that all started with them. They love to know the story. What is history behind it? Why is it relevant? What does it mean to me?”

For those of us who are storytellers, this is extremely encouraging news.

But before we get too excited, we have to consider how this emerging generation shares and processes stories.

Gen Zers, after all, are true digital natives who seem to have an attention span more attuned to Snapchat than Shakespeare. As a result, the notion that they are all in for a good story left me a bit skeptical — especially as a parent to two Generation Zers.

So I took a detour in my interview with Marcie to dig a bit deeper. And indeed, she explained there are a few strings attached. Gen Z will listen to your story. But only if you follow these 5 rules:

Don’t treat them like Millennials

The differences between Millennials and Gen Z are stark.

“This next generation is as different from Millennials as Millennials were from Gen Xers,” Marcie says. “Gen Z is much more independent, and focused on succeeding. And because of the Post-9/11 world they grew up in, they have been raised by parents who gave them much more realistic views on life.”

Marcie further explained that the ‘helicopter parent,’ has been largely replaced with the ‘stealth bomber parent.’ In general, Gen Z parents don’t constantly hover. Instead “they monitor, strike when needed to guide, correct or advise their child, and then zoom out.” 

Your story should follow the same model. Be strategic in the information you include and how it can be useful to your Gen Z reader. Don’t hover.

Be authentic

This advice cuts across every generation, but is particularly relevant for the under-21 set. As Marcie bluntly put it: “Their BS meter is pretty good…They have had easy access to all the information they wanted and needed their whole lives, so they tend to look things up, find out what is behind it, and then make decisions.”

Any attempt at the hard sell, fudging the facts, or outward phoniness will be sniffed out and rejected. When it comes to storytelling, as long as it is factual and offers an easy way for them to understand what is behind it, then you have an audience. 

Get to the point

Gen Z has little time for fluff. They are a no-nonsense lot that values relevancy and logic. As Gen Z expert Lucie Greene told the New York Times, think studious and practical Alex Dunphy from the popular ABC show “Modern Family,” as compared to her more Millennial-leaning older sister, Haley.

And if you are trying to hold Alex’s attention, your content better have a quick and clear purpose. “Focus on helping them to learn as opposed just drilling random facts into them,” Marcie says. “The education system has largely moved away from rote memorization, so this is the way their psyche has developed.”

Show don’t tell

The classic ‘show don’t tell’ maxim for good writing hits the mark with Gen Z. 

“They don’t take being told what to do very well,” Marcie says. “As opposed to telling them what to do without context, it’s much better to provide them with the opportunity to see how they can be part of a something or contribute in ways that benefit themselves or others.” 

Marcie cites research that found 80 % of Gen Z respondents said they know whether or not they should do something because their parents have explained the consequences – not because those parents said, “because we say so!”

Deliver seamlessly

Here may be the knottiest catch of all. Your story may hit all the right Gen Z buttons, but it’s all but dead unless it appears before Gen Z eyes effortlessly or requires they take only minimal of action to access it.

“This is the one-click generation—and you are lucky if you even get that,” Marcie says. “They are expecting things to happen automatically. Anything that creates any hassle whatsoever is not just inconvenient, it is a deal killer.”

Ultimately, Gen Z isn’t really asking much. They want information delivered quickly and in ways that help them make decisions—and make sense of the world they are navigating. As storytellers if we achieve that, we’re sure to make strong connections with Gen Z, and all the other generations that came before them.

Scott Westcott is Corporate Practice Leader at Turn Two Communications. Learn more at Turn-two.co