Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, Joshua Stein gives some practical advice to lawyers on how to manage their relationship with the press.
Reporters can embarrass you. But they can also help you and your clients get your message and name out into the world, if that’s what you want.
When a reporter calls, any lawyer’s first instinct is to say “No comment.” That’s a really good first instinct, particularly for anyone except the most senior member of a legal team representing a client. For that senior lawyer, though, “no comment” might not always be the right answer at the end of the day.
Lawyers aren’t supposed to be founts of information, particularly about their client’s affairs — unless that’s what the client wants. All of that is a matter of legal ethics and client relations, and represents the first and most important element of any lawyer’s strategy in dealing with the press. It’s outside the scope of this article.
Once you get past that “gating issue,” you will sometimes want or need to talk with the press. Here are a few suggestions for how to do that….
The Reporter’s Call. When you get a call from a reporter, try to find out two things. First, what questions do they want to ask, or what is the general subject matter of the interview? Second, when is their deadline? Try to resist your urge to accommodate them immediately. Instead, take good notes and then think about what you want to say, how you want to say it, and who else needs to be on board for your response. Once you’ve thought all this through and spoken to anyone you need to speak to, then call the reporter back, well before their deadline if possible, and have your conversation with them. If you decide it’s better not to comment, at least call the reporter back promptly and tell them that.
Objectivity. Don’t expect reporters to be “objective.” Today’s reporters often approach any story with a point they want to make, a message they want to communicate. And it won’t necessarily match up with your interests or your client’s interests. Often, you can figure out a reporter’s view of the world in the first 10 seconds of a conversation. Proceed accordingly. Don’t expect them to just objectively “report.” That idea went out the window a long time ago.
Accuracy and Nuances. Reporters don’t always “get it right,” particularly if you are trying to explain something complicated or nuanced. They are often more interested in pithy sound bites than in a complete explanation. Give them the pithy sound bites they want, but try to do so in a way that can’t possibly be misinterpreted or misquoted. Try to leave out the nuances if you can. As in so many other areas in dealing with the press, keep it simple.
Interviews by Email. If time allows, you might want to use email to communicate at least some of your comments to a reporter. This lets you think through your words much more carefully, and may reduce the risk of mistakes by the reporter. It maintains a record of what you communicated, something that can be both good and bad. In many cases, the reporter will want to follow up on an “interview by email” with a conversation.