Q&A: Working with the news media
Baptist Press
May 01, 2009

Q&A: Working with the news media

Q&A: Working with the news media
Baptist Press
May 01, 2009

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Even under normal circumstances, a call

from the news media to your church can be nerve-wracking. But it doesn’t have

to be that way. Consider the answers Rob Phillips, communications director at

LifeWay Christian Resources, provides to these commonly asked questions about

working with the news media.

Q: Why talk to reporters?

A: It’s our responsibility. Whether working for an SBC

entity such as LifeWay or serving in a local church, our ministries impact the

public and we have a duty to speak openly and onestly with people. Besides,

the news media are conduits for reaching our audiences with important messages,

especially in times of crisis. In this day of 24/7 news, blogs, Twitter and cell

phone videos, someone is going to tell our story. Shouldn’t it be us?

News media decide what is news, but Rob Phillips, LifeWay communications director, believes pastors and church leaders can have an influence. See Does your church have communications plan?

Q: Who decides what news is?

A: The news media. We can influence the news — suggest

angles, pitch stories and help shape the reporting of events, but ultimately

news directors and editors decide what gets played. However, the emergence of

social media is diminishing the control of news and information once held by

newspapers, radio and TV stations. In many ways, this is a positive

development, but not without its risks since the social media are largely


Q: What if we think reporters are out to get us?

A: Generally speaking, reporters are out to get the story.

There are clear cases of bias in the media, but even the most slanted reporters

almost always give the other side a chance to speak. Keep in mind the

difference between a news story, analysis and commentary.

Q: Which reporters should we talk to?

A: All of them, but in a crisis you may need to prioritize

according to ministry and business needs. Even if you don’t like some

reporters, remember never to pick a fight with people who buy paper by the ton

and ink by the barrel.

Q: Who should talk to reporters?

A: Designated spokespersons from your church or

organization. If possible, they should be media trained. This will prepare them

to share key messages in addition to answering the questions.

Q: If I’m the spokesperson, what should I say?

A: Stick with what you know — your area of expertise. Don’t

speculate. Don’t discuss confidential or privileged information, such as

employee records. Say, “I don’t know,” when you don’t know. Most importantly,

when you’ve answered the question and bridged to a message, stop talking.

Q: What if a reporter uses only one quote?

A: Reporters tend to look for “sound bites,” not monologues.

Also, editors can be merciless on reporters’ copy, and other pressing news

items may have reduced the “news hole” for the day. It’s good to have two or

three key messages when you agree to an interview. Keep repeating the messages

as you answer the reporter’s questions.

Q: Why can’t I see the story before it’s printed?

A: Frankly, it’s offensive to a journalist to be asked that

question. Reporters talk to lots of people, work on tight deadlines and submit

their stories to editors. Good writers will call you to check facts before

filing a story. As a safeguard, you may want to record your interview. It might

encourage the reporter to quote you accurately, and you can always post the

interview on your blog or website if you think you were treated unfairly.

Q: When should I say “no comment?”

A: Never. These two words imply that you’re guilty or hiding

something. However, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t

discuss this because …” when you don’t have anything to say; when you’re not

the designated spokesperson; when you’re not prepared; or when the information

is privileged (like personnel files), proprietary (competitive data, for

example) or in litigation. In other words, it’s OK to decline comment when you

have a good reason, but you should share that reason with the reporter rather

than use the fateful words “no comment.”

Q: Is it OK to speak “off the record?”

A: Generally, no. A good rule of thumb is that anytime

you’re in the presence of a reporter — even at a social function or church —

consider yourself on the record. An exception is the “background” interview

during which you provide non-attributable information to a journalist to help

shape a story or increase the reporter’s understanding. Trust must be

established between you and the reporter for such an interview to be granted,

or you may end up wishing you had said “no comment.”

Q: How do I fix it if the reporter gets it wrong?

A: First, assess the damage. Is a misspelled name

or a minor factual error worth your outrage? If the story is negative to begin

with, do you want to risk a second negative story? If the errors are

substantial, however, begin by contacting the reporter who may print a

correction or even a retraction. If you reach an impasse, contact the editor

for that section of the paper, write a letter to the editor or post a comment

on the newspaper’s website (many online newspaper editions allow this). Keep

your church website, and perhaps your blog, in mind as potential places to get

“equal time.”

Q: What should I do if a reporter calls me?

A: Get the reporter’s name, number, deadline, subject and

other specifics. Promise a call back — and keep your promise. Then work through

your organization’s media response procedure to provide an appropriate response.

You are never obligated to provide an on-the-spot interview just because a

reporter asked.

See Does your church have communications plan?