Dealing with the media

Dealing with the media can be challenging and difficult. Treat it as an advocacy exercise: be prepared. Your most important job is to determine what message you want to give. Be organized and clear about your goals.

Draft the message in writing for yourself to ensure that you give a consistent message and that interviewers give the same message. You should be able to summarize the message in a few sentences, and an intelligent high school student should be able to understand it. Stay on message, even if the reporter tries to move you away.

Abandon any thought of controlling the outcome. Lawyers love to control. It’s the makeup of their personalities. You will not be able to control what is written or broadcast. You can influence the outcome, and you control the input, but the final version is totally out of your hands.

The reporter may have a specific agenda, or a specific assignment. The reporter may have a low level of understanding of the issue. The issue of concern to you may not be of any interest to the audience. You will not necessarily know any of these things. These variables will affect the outcome, and should affect your input.

What kind of story were you contacted about? A legal news story has a life of one day (i.e., the day the decision is released). That story will not be news tomorrow and you will not be in demand tomorrow. If it is a big news story and you are in great demand, have other lawyers available who are knowledgeable. Everyone should be giving the same message.

Before you do the substantive interview, ask reporters what their deadlines are. If it’s a news story, the deadline may be “right now.” Identifying the deadlines gives you a chance to think about what you want to say and to deal with them in order of deadlines.

If it is a news story about a recent judgment, read the entire judgment before answering questions, especially if you were not counsel. Do not just read the headnote or other summary, and do not answer questions based on the reporter’s summary of the judgment. The reporter will usually not have read the judgment and will be relying on you for both content and interpretation. If you are contacted about a story that is less time sensitive (e.g., a law reform story), it may not have a deadline or the deadline may be farther off.

Be polite and helpful. It is in your own interest and your client’s interest, as you may be dealing with some reporters more than once. Return every call, even when you can’t say anything or are not knowledgeable on the topic. Suggest someone else they could call. Give them as much information as you can.

Each media outlet has a different framework, different needs, a different audience, a different way to prepare and package the story, and you may need to deliver different information to each. Tailor your remarks to the type of media involved.

For one you are totally unfamiliar with (e.g., an ethnic newspaper you do not read), ask the reporter about the publication’s audience. Print media has a different time line and story structure than radio or television, and has the luxury of more space, so does a more in-depth report than electronic media. So the interview you give for print media should be quite different.

Know who the players are. A reporter can be a print, radio, television, or other electronic media reporter. In radio and television, your first contact may be with a producer. The producer is a decision-maker who plans the presentation of the story, is sometimes the background researcher, is usually very smart, and whose job it is to find out if you have anything to say about an issue. If you do not impress the producer, you will not be part of their media outlet’s coverage, so do not save your best for someone else.

The producer often writes the story, including the introduction and the questions for the on-air talent to ask you, so your interview with the producer is an opportunity to frame the story in a way that is consistent with your message.

The on-air talent will vary in intelligence, courtesy, skills, and ability to move with the story. Pay attention to where the story is going, be flexible and be able to shift gears if needed. If the story gets derailed, bring it back to where you want it to be.

Know the format. If it is an interview, how long will the on-air story be? That may give you some idea of the length of time you will eventually get in the story (very short). If it is a panel, who else is on the panel? What is their perspective? Are the other panellists lawyers or other professionals, or are they clients with a totally different perspective? This story is your day job, but it may be someone else’s life.

Just say no if the format or the participants are concerning. They will find someone else. If it is a debate, be wary, as the debate format is sometimes inappropriate for a serious story. Do not let yourself be used to produce a sensational program on a topic that deserves more solemnity.

The background to the story is very important. You need to quickly identify whether the reporter knows anything about the story and if so, the depth of the reporter’s knowledge and understanding. Often a generalist reporter is assigned to the story. The reporter may know nothing about the particular issue or area of law.

If so, make it your responsibility to educate the reporter, in a background way and completely separate from your substantive interview or message, so that the reporter can actually understand your message. This ensures that the story makes sense and will endear you to the reporter.

How to give good clips: You will not control how you are quoted, how long the clip will be, or in what context it will be used. You will not get to choose which sentences the reporter uses. Get your message out clearly in every sentence, so that your message will still get across, no matter how your interview is clipped/quoted. Make every sentence count.

This is harder for lawyers than it sounds, as this is not how lawyers are trained to present information. Lawyers speak in paragraphs, and have a tendency to build up to the point and put it at the end of the paragraph. This is the wrong way to present information to the media. Use point-first advocacy. Make the point in the very first sentence, and then follow it with the argument or evidence in support. Do not make the “paragraph” (the explanation) too long or too wordy.

What not to say: The reporter is not your friend. Do not get chummy or chatty, even when you have a friendly relationship with the reporter. You may let your guard down, and there may be catastrophic results. “No comment”

always sounds like the interviewee has something to hide. Do not say it. Find a way to respond to every question even if the answer is a non-answer. If you cannot do that and stay on message, then do not do the interview.

Do not use lawyer language - ever. Use two- to three-syllable words. Use plain language. Speak English. This is very important. You are not trying to impress, you are trying to communicate. Complicated language is hard to understand and your clips will not be used. Reporters and editors intentionally gravitate toward lawyers who are able to simplify the information and who can put the concepts into plain language. If you can do that, they will contact you again.

Listen to other media interviews with lawyers, to see what works and what doesn’t. Listen to the language they use. Is it understandable to a high school student? Was the message clear? Was there sufficient background information provided to understand the lawyer’s point?

Do not talk to the media if it does not advance your client’s interest. Return the call and tell the reporter that you regret that you cannot discuss the case with them right now. Do not say “no comment.” Just politely decline to be interviewed at present.

Nothing you say to a reporter is off the record, unless you tell them that before you say it. Even then, do not have confidence that it will never appear in the story. Your off-the-record comments may appear without attribution to you, but may still cause harm. Everything you say to the reporter is on the record and available for use by the reporter. If you cannot say it on the record, do not say it.

Do not answer questions outside your area of expertise. It is okay to say that you do not know. The reporter will just move on. You gain nothing by trying to answer in an area you do not know.
Do not attempt humour; do not be sarcastic or ironic. It will not come across well.

Have reasonable expectations about what media exposure can and cannot do for you. Increasing your profile through media interviews does not, sadly, translate into an increase in business. And the business it does produce is business one would sooner not attract. It may, however, make your colleagues envious. That may be worthwhile.

Carole Curtis is a family law lawyer in a three-lawyer firm in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected]

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