Guidelines for working with the media

making the news | preventing mishaps | radio interview | phone interview | studio interview | television interview

Like most universities, EMU has a marketing and communications department to help the outside world understand what’s happening at our institution and to raise our profiles. Working with journalists helps to present a positive picture of our work and achievements. We do this in a number of ways:

Press Releases
Information about newsworthy events at the university is usually issued by us in the form of a press release. Sometimes the events will be mainly of interest to local media, such as the Harrisonburg Daily News Record or TV-3, and to the Mennonite media. Items that are especially newsworthy are usually sent to specialist correspondents of national newspapers and their news editors. The press release is a quick, efficient method of getting an item into the news.
Press Conferences
If an event is likely to receive a lot of press interest, or it is the subject of an embargo tied in with publication in a journal, or it involves a number of people at EMU, Marketing and Communications will organize a press conference. Journalists will be invited to a venue at an allotted time to hear those involved give a short presentation. The press will then be given an opportunity to ask questions. This ensures that interested media all receive information at the same time and is an efficient method of getting major stories out in the public domain.
Tip-offs
A press release isn’t always the best way of getting coverage. Sometimes a publication will give a story greater prominence if it’s offered as an"exclusive". If we think we have a story that would be ideal for a particular publication or news program, we may make an individual approach to the editor.
Experts’ Bureau
We produce a list of faculty prepared to talk to the media about their areas of expertise. Ideally, we’d like all academics to offer some area in which they could give comments or advice. Remember that however modest you may be about your expertise, your knowledge will be more than sufficient for most media needs.
Speaking for the university
Another major role for EMU’s Public Information Officer is to speak on behalf of the university. In particular, he or she is authorized to explain EMU policy to the media and transmit information about EMU affairs. Faculty members are not permitted to do this. You are free to express your personal views in public or private, provided that it is done explicitly in your name and not in that of the university. If you receive any questions from the media regarding university policies, you should direct the journalist to the Public Information Officer or Director of Marketing & Communications.

The stories that make the news

What happens first?

You tell us about your latest work or other news and we’ll discuss the angles and audiences to whom it might appeal. If we think the news will generate a lot of media interest, we may suggest holding a press conference.

Stories interest editors if they:

  • relate closely to an event which has already made news
  • provide a new and interesting angle or some human interest

All news is more interesting if it is about people rather than things. A story about academic research will have a far better chance of being picked up by the press if it includes personal details that will help it come alive for the audience, or if is about something that will affect the lives of ordinary people.

We’ll then write the press release, incorporating the vital information. You can check over the press release for accuracy, but remember, we are writing the press release in the format and manner necessary for widest possible usage by the media.

In order to produce an interesting and newsworthy press release, it would be helpful for you to supply the following information:

  • As much information as possible about the event/project/award – who, what, when, where, why and how?
  • A quote or quotes from a relevant person(s).
  • If the news involves a complicated or technical subject, keep it simple – avoid jargon, acronyms and abbreviations to be understood by a wider audience.
  • A list of any specialist or trade press contacts to whom you would like the release sent.
  • A good quality photograph if possible (by email)
  • When sending information to the Information Officer, please respond as quickly as possible to requests for further information and/or approval of a release.

We send out the press release, with your name and telephone number as a contact, as well as contact details of the Information Officer. We’ll need to know your availability for interviews. Depending on the nature of the story, the release will go to local media, national media, specialist publications or specialist correspondents.

What happens next?

News desks generally decide very soon after receiving the press release whether or not they want to cover your story. If it’s of mass appeal (say, you’ve found a cure for a terminal disease, or you’ve come up with a new theory on the secret of eternal happiness), you’re likely to be inundated with requests for interviews, and they’ll want them now. Timing is crucial to newspapers and broadcasters. You may find your schedule disrupted for a couple of days while you fit in interviews. It’s best to leave your immediate schedule flexible once a press release has gone out.

How to prepare for your interview

Hopefully, the press release will have described your work succinctly and it will just be a matter of the journalist asking you to reiterate what you have already said. Rehearse a few questions and answers of the"what, where, who, why, how?"variety. If your work is complex, think of some easy analogies to explain it better. Do you have something visual that might be good for a photograph or TV cameras?

Whether the interview is for the press, radio or television, the following simple guidelines should help protect you against distortion and enable you to get across what you want to say:

Five golden rules

  • Begin with the main points and ideas.
  • State your point clearly and repeat it frequently if necessary.
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms.
  • Use simple, intelligible examples to support your statements.
  • Don’t try to cover everything.

How to prepare for your press conference

We will organize the practical side of the event (venue, invitations, press information packs). You will be required to think about how you will present yourself and your work. The easiest format is a short presentation of about 15 minutes, followed by a 15-minute question and answer session. Be mindful of the golden Rules when preparing your talk and when answering questions. We will wind-up the event. Some journalists may want to talk further to you afterwards, perhaps to get more explanation of a complex idea, or to dig a little deeper into the subject matter. Beware of journalists trying to catch you off guard.

What to expect as an “EMU Expert”

Academics who are experts in fairly general fields (health, religion or the environment) find their knowledge and opinions are frequently sought by the media. Others are called upon only if their specialization suddenly becomes topical.

If you are contacted directly by a journalist, you probably won’t be given much time to gather your thoughts (a news reporter will be up against deadlines). Don’t worry too much about trying to give a detailed analysis. Reporters are usually looking for no more than a sentence or two and may just want you to talk in a general way.

If you are able to buy some time, ask the reporter to call you back. In any event, remember to take the reporter’s name, phone number and the name of their media organization.

Your big fears – and how to prevent them

Misrepresentation

Journalists rarely set out to misrepresent or misquote people. Errors usually occur because of the speed at which journalists have to work. You can help to avoid such problems by patiently explaining your work to the reporters and checking to see if they have understood you. Be helpful, build up a good rapport and you’ll minimize disappointment.

Off the record

There is no such thing as “off the record.” If you don’t want the reporter to know about something, don’t tell them. Things said “off the record” have a nasty habit of appearing in print.

The Devil’s advocate

If a reporter chooses to give you a hard time or attempts to trash your work, don’t rise to the bait. Stay calm and repeat your message. If it is about university policy, refer the reporter to the Information Officer.

Speaking to print journalists

This may be a face-to-face interview, or a phone call. The reporter may record the interview, but is just as likely to take notes.

Before the interview starts, check:

  • Whether the reporter is a specialist or a general reporter. Specialists may already have some knowledge or your work. General reporters will need more information.
  • Whether they are working to a tight deadline. You may have to respond quickly.

And afterwards:

  • Check the reporter has all the information he or she needs.
  • Suggest to the reporter that he or she contacts you if they need anything else.
  • It is unlikely that a journalist will show you the full article before publication, but you might be shown the words that will be attributed to you.
  • Find out when the article is likely to appear.

The radio interview

The first approach by a radio station will usually be made by a researcher or a producer on the phone. Before you agree to take part, try to find out:

  • What are they expecting from you?
  • What questions will you be asked?
  • Will the interview be live or recorded?
  • What kind of audience does the program attract?
  • Will anyone else be involved?

Meanwhile, the radio researcher will be establishing:

  • Your views on your subject.
  • Whether you can talk reasonably fluently.
  • The angle from which the presenter will approach the interview.

After talking to you, the researcher will write a lead into the interview and devise some questions based on the conversation. Always think in advance about likely questions and try to have in hand a couple of good examples to illustrate what you are saying.

You may be interviewed over the phone, or you could be asked into the studio.

The phone interview

  • Unless you already know it will be a live interview, don’t be rushed into agreeing to do it immediately. Take some time to collect your thoughts and arrange a time for them to phone back.
  • Remember the Five Golden Rules.

The studio interview

  • Be punctual: studios are precisely booked.
  • Sit comfortably about a foot from the microphone.
  • Don’t fidget, click your fingers, jangle your loose change or play with your keys.
  • Be yourself. Talk on air as to your friends.
  • Remember the five golden rules.
  • Don’t worry about ‘drying up’. That’s the interviewer’s problem.

If you are very dissatisfied with your answer in a pre-recorded interview, you can ask to be allowed to answer that particular question again. Please always ask the presenter to mention that you are from Eastern Mennonite University.

The television interview

As for radio, the first approach by the researcher or producer is, in effect, an audition. You are being checked for confidence and fluency. It is important at this stage to remember that what you say will be guiding the researcher and that you are setting the agenda for your contribution to the program.

Before you agree to take part in a program, find out all you can about the circumstances in which you are being asked to appear.

  • What will be the line of questioning?
  • Who will be doing the interview?
  • How long will it take?
  • Will anyone else be taking part?
  • Will it be live or pre-recorded?
  • If pre-recorded will it be in a studio or at the University?

Please ask the interviewer to mention the University and where appropriate make sure that the program credits mention the Eastern Mennonite University. Also make sure that your own name and title are correct.

Location, location, location …

If the crew are coming to interview you on campus, decide in advance whether you would be happy being interviewed in your own room, in which case think about where you would sit and what would be a suitable background for filming.

Do you really want your collection of festering coffee cups, or your withered pot plants in the shots? Alternatively you could be interviewed outside. The decision is yours.

Preparation

Remember the golden rules. In addition, you should realize that 60 per cent of your communication will be non-verbal. How you look and behave in front of a camera will color everything you say.

How you should look

  • Make sure your hair is tidy. It’s the first thing viewers notice.
  • Wear plain, mid-hue colors. Blues, greens and browns are best.
  • Women should avoid wearing too much jewelery.
  • Men should shave if necessary as the camera highlights stubble.

Your body language

  • Look the interviewer in the eye.
  • Stand or sit upright – beware chairs that make you slouch.
  • Smile and look interested in what the interviewer is saying.
  • Avoid obvious nervous mannerisms (clenching your fists, fiddling with your hair).

Technical hazards

You need to be aware of your microphone – if it is by the side of your chair don’t knock it; if its pinned to you, don’t play with your tie or blouse – but otherwise ignore all equipment. Concentrate on the interviewer. Speak at a relaxed conversational speed. Be yourself.

After the interview, don’t rush away from your chair. You may still be in view. Wait until you are asked to move. You may find that after the interview the cameraman wants to take what are called ‘reaction shots’. These are shots of the interviewer reacting as you talk. These shots give the producer a separate film of the interviewer which allows him or her to edit the film of you; e.g. they can disguise a cut in your interview by splicing in a shot of the interviewer.

Try not to let the whole ‘crew thing’ (sound and cameras, gaffers, fixers, producers, directors etc.) with its concentrated use of time and tape put a pressure on you to let the last ‘take’ you just made do. If you are not happy with a particular shot then let them know this and ask for the shot to be taken again. A lot of editing will be done after the filming which you will not have any control over, so make sure the shots are as good as possible before they get to this stage.

And finally…

If you make it on air and you’re happy about how you appear, that’s great. However, you may find that the program does not use the interview of you after all. This does not reflect on your performance.

Television producers always make sure that they have more material than they need and schedules are frequently changed at the last minute depending on what news has broken through the day. It is the nature of the business and you shouldn’t take it personally.