Who Should Do the Talking? Your Spokespeople

People often panic when reporters call. There’s no reason for most people to fear a journalist’s questions. In fact, it’s often a great opportunity to educate the reporter about your library — if you know how to take advantage of it.

Typically, calls from reporters come directly to a communications or development staff member. Many times, however, it is a receptionist who first picks up the phone. Both of these interactions can flavor your library’s relationship with the reporter. This section covers both tips for official spokespeople as well as hints for a media professional, an assistant who answers the phone and staff from other departments. There are also specific tips in the Tools, Tips and Tricks of the Trade section.

Before and After the Interview

For the person that has primary contact with reporters or answers the phone:

  • Be accessible. We all have meetings and other commitments. If you want to become a regular source for journalists, you MUST be accessible. Train the person who answers your phone to keep a separate log of reporters who call—with names, news outlets, direct phone, fax numbers, email addresses, and their deadline. If you are going to be in a meeting, let that person know where you are and if you can be interrupted. When he or she talks to a reporter, this should be communicated along with “but I know she’d be eager to talk with you. Can I interrupt her—or can she call back at 3 p.m.? When do you need to hear from her? Can you tell me what you need to know so I can find someone else to help you right now?” Try to rearrange things if you can to avoid saying no the first several times radio or TV producers call so you can get onto their rolodexes.
  • Accessible, but you need not take a call when it comes. Often, reporters are on tight deadlines. But sometimes, you have plenty of time to prepare background materials and to brief your spokesperson, if an interview is requested. Ask if you can return the reporter’s call at a specified time. Using your message manual, jot down a few notes based on your talking points or develop new ones for the specific request. Practice or prepare the spokesperson and then call the journalist back. If you’re really convinced you or your spokesperson is the wrong source, suggest an alternate.
  • Ask questions before accepting to do or Schedule an interview. Be sure you know the angle the journalist is coming from. Is he or she calling simply for background information or to schedule an interview with a spokesperson? Who else is being interviewed? Will other organizations be represented? Does he or she want a national spokesperson’s perspective? Is it going to be in a special section? When will it be coming out or on-air? Will it be taped or live?
  • Take time to prepare. Even the most skilled media professionals and spokespeople take a few minutes to prepare. If the reporter is on deadline, you or your spokesperson can call him or her back in five to ten minutes. That should be enough time to focus on your key messages.
  • Preview one or two upcoming events or issues. While providing background information, take advantage of any interaction with a journalist and mention a story idea, an upcoming event, or a burning issue. Don’t be shy. You may just stimulate the story of your dreams.
  • Drop a thank-you note. Most reporters hear about their errors. Few get thanked for their accuracy and insight. Journalists have long memories. Especially when you’re competing for scarce space, it helps to drop a note to a reporter who you feel “Gets it”—and his or her boss. Even though email is used frequently for communicating with reporters, hand-written notes go a long way these days. You may be pleasantly surprised next time you call with a story idea.

Determining the best spokespeople: Your director, children’s librarian, volunteer?

Who is the best person for the interview? Whether planning a media campaign or simply answering media inquiries that arise, you need to identify the best spokesperson for the particular type of request. Generally, your director and your board chair are the main spokespersons. However, depending on the size of your library and the amount of media attention you receive, you may identify additional individuals to speak on your behalf. These could include program or other appropriate staff, other members of your board, volunteers, or members of the community who can sing your praises or speak to a specific issue.

Spokespeople need to have media training, whether for a yearly brushing up or full-scale training with a professional. If non-staff are going to be spokespeople, it is always a good idea to be in close touch with them about their contribution well before you need them. Look into professional or pro bono media trainers—to practice sound bites on or off camera—who can help you professionalize and personalize your messaging. Again, this can be done by qualified staff or outside consultants.

The actual interview

Staying in control of an interview can help you get your message out—and save you from future headaches. Skilled spokespeople can take any question thrown at them, answer it, and bring it back to their original message—all within a few sentences. Below are some tips for your spokespeople.

  • Take time to prepare. [Yes, you just read this message above. It’s crucial.] Even the most skilled media professionals and spokespeople take a few minutes to prepare. If the reporter is on deadline, you or your spokesperson can call him or her back in five to ten minutes. That should be enough time to focus on your key messages.
  • Be succinct. Don’t ramble. Even print reporters have space constraints. And they can easily take your rambling comments out of context. If words don’t roll off your tongue, keep a sheet of one-liners near your phone. Practice short answers to common questions with a friend or colleague with a stopwatch. Know two or three short, compelling stories that make your case. Then cook them down and practice telling them.
  • Don't use jargon. Even with the reporter who knows your issues, steer clear of tech talk. It’s stiff, turns off the uninformed, and is less likely to be quoted. Likewise, always spell out acronyms, and don’t assume the friendly reporter you talked to a month ago remembers the buzzwords. Consider starting from square one unless you know and have spoken to the reporter previously. It’s a good habit in any case, and usually generates more lively copy.
  • Never answer questions you don't understand. If the reporter asks a question that’s vague or needs clarification, check for understanding. Interviews aren’t one-way streets. Ask a reporter to repeat the question or rephrase it. Restate it yourself, buying time to compose an answer, but be especially sure you understand just what you’re being asked. You may even clear up the reporter’s confusion or misstatement.
  • Pause or think before you answer. You can always buy yourself time by saying, “That’s a good question.” You can also pause before you begin your answer to get your thoughts in order.
  • Avoid one-word answers. “Yes” and “No” won’t help you get your point across. Take the opportunity to expand, or bring the conversation back to your main message.
  • Stay “on message.” If an interview starts on the wrong topic, be sure to bring it back to what you’re really there to discuss. You can do that by using the following Special Tricks …

Special Tricks

These techniques can help you keep control of the interview, ensure you get your points across, and speak directly to the audience if on television or radio.

  • Bridging. If the interview is heading down the wrong road or if the reporter has used bad phrasing, build a bridge by saying “well, that’s an interesting question, but what we really need to address is . . .” This is a technique that lets you turn the tide from a reporter’s agenda to your own. A few examples:
  • “That’s an important question, Susan, but what’s critical for people to know about library literacy is . . .” If a reporter says, “but isn’t it true that libraries are no longer necessary because of the Internet,” don’t respond using that bad opinion by saying, “no, it isn’t true that libraries are no longer necessary.” Instead, turn it around and say “Libraries are flourishing…” and so forth.
  • Beware of leading questions. Some reporters try to influence interviews by saying
  • “Would you say” or “isn’t it true.” Avoid falling into the trap of agreeing with them. If you don’t agree or if it’s not true, be sure to say, “No. Actually, the truth is . . .”
  • Flag important statements. This is different from bridging because you are identifying “The most important thing here is . . .” or “The real issue is . . .” you not only get the reporter’s attention, but you also get the audience’s attention too, and the audience is who you are speaking to. This is also a good way to get to your key message.
  • Hook your interviewer. By saying “There are three important points here . . .” the interviewer (and the audience) is automatically waiting for those three points. It grabs the interviewer’s attention, and they can’t cut you off before you finish the three points without annoying their audience.