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Media Training: When Reporters Lie

I recently worked with a group dealing with an unusual problem. It seems that a local television reporter in town known for his aggressive style of reporting has a nasty habit of lying. Let's call him Jack.

Whenever a sensitive issue arises, Jack requests an interview with a spokesperson for the group. The spokesperson knows that if he doesn't agree to the interview, Jack will ambush him - in a parking lot, in a grocery store, or outside his home.

So before agreeing to the interview, the spokesperson asks Jack not to broach certain sensitive topics. Jack agrees. With the ground rules in place, the spokesperson consents to do the interview. The interview begins.

But the moment the cameras start rolling, Jack ignores the rules and asks the very questions he promised not to. Jack asks them in a way to make the spokesperson look as bad as possible. The spokesperson is caught off-guard and veers way off message. He looks bad and damages the reputation of his group.

Let's back up for a moment. Jack has every right to refuse conditions being placed on the questions he can ask during an interview. Further, if a spokesperson requests certain conditions, Jack has the right to report that request, whether or not he agrees to them. But if he agrees to those terms in advance and breaks them, well, Jack's just a liar.

Now, let's add one more element to this equation. The media in Jack's town are addicted to tabloid-style news. Sensationalism sells, and local reporters have a nasty habit of making innocuous stories appear as shocking as possible. Their goal is to attract an audience at any cost.

You might think a solution is just to avoid the reporter - but remember - Jack will show up when you don't expect him, and if you refuse to talk to him, he will play the videotape of your hand covering the camera for weeks.

So what should you do in the most egregious cases when a reporter lies? The following three tips may be helpful:

1. Get Media Training: Okay, so it may seem a bit self-serving for a media trainer to advocate media training. Still, media training, especially one-on-one training, is made for circumstances like these, and can help a spokesperson answer difficult questions with relative ease.

ABC News Reporter Sam Donaldson had it right when he quipped, "Questions don't do the damage. Only the answers do." Spokespersons shouldn't have to request that certain topics be off-limits. Instead, they should prepare in advance for the most challenging questions. Doing so will help them appear almost delighted that a reporter has finally given them the opportunity to speak about them.

2. Write a Letter to the Station Manager: It's possible that the station manager doesn't know just how much his or her reporters are breaking the rules to get a story. Here, you can use reporter codes of conduct to your advantage. For example, you may write:

In exchange for agreeing to an interview with Jack, several of our spokespersons have requested certain questions be kept off limits. Jack has agreed. Despite those agreements, Jack has consistently broken his word, asking those very questions the moment the camera starts rolling.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says journalists should, "Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises."

In addition, Jack is treating his sources with blatant disrespect, in one case shouting after a senior official and calling her disgusting names. This is a violation of the Poynter Institute's Guiding Principles for the Journalist, which state: "Sources [are] human beings deserving of respect, not merely a means to your journalistic ends."

We are happy to cooperate with your station's future inquiries, even if they are unfavorable to our group. But in exchange for continued access, we request only that you comply with the basic rules of journalistic fairness in the future.

Will this help? Maybe, maybe not. But in desperate circumstances, it might be worth the shot.

3. Prepare a Canned Response: In the most desperate circumstances, you may blacklist a reporter entirely. This piece of heavy artillery should only be pulled out rarely - in other words, if you're banning more than one reporter per decade, it's probably too many.

In the case of Jack, though, it might be warranted. That doesn't mean you ignore him when he ambushes you. Instead, prepare your spokespersons - all of them - for his ambush. They should stop before his camera. They should take his question seriously. And they should issue a response such as:

"Your question deserves a serious answer - not one delivered in a parking lot. If one of your colleagues would like to schedule an interview with a member of our group, we would be happy to answer his or her questions. Thank you, and we look forward to the opportunity to express our point of view on this matter."

Then, with a small nod or smile, the ambushee should walk with a sense of purpose - but without a hint of defensiveness - to his or her destination.

One final point - if a news organization is determined to write something unfavorable about you, there's little you can do to stop them. But you can control your response - and a well planned media strategy can help neutralize a negative story.

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.

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