7 DIY Rules for When the Reporter Calls

You did the outreach. Now what do you do when someone responds?

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By Derek Newton

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Startups can't always hire Rolodex-rich public relations firms or publicists who can usher their names and ideas to the head of the line. So many entrepreneurs try to boot-strap their PR -- and do it on their own.

While people with different views and experiences disagree about whether or not that's a good idea, sometimes it's the only option. But after several late nights Googling reporters' e-mail addresses and long hours crafting the perfect short-yet-witty pitch, what do you do when the phone rings? Or the inbox lights up?

What do you do when a reporter takes your bait and calls or writes with a question? Or several?

As much as they want that phone to ring, many people panic. But you don't need to. Here, seven tips for keeping your cool and turning potential gold into a polished PR strategy.

1. Plan for it.

First, if you really did your homework, you already know who in your company is prepared to speak to the press. You should know this before you send an announcement, release or pitch. And if you have a good pitch, you shouldn't be surprised when you get a response. It should be what you wanted.

2. Don't rush.

Having a plan will help you stay focused and calm. That's important.

Simply passing the reporter to your company spokesperson is the wrong play. A better one? Get some basic info and take a message. Even if you're the person who will eventually speak to the reporter -- just don't. Take the information and get back to them after you've collected your thoughts.

3. Be enthusiastic.

Even though you're putting them off for a time, don't let it feel that way. Be happy they made contact. Say you're delighted and you'd be thrilled to help get them whatever they need. Don't be short or give the impression that they're a bother or interrupting (even if they are). You don't want to turn them off so they don't reach out the next time.

Related: Lobster Went From Prison Food to Delicacy. Your Product Can, Too

4. But get info.

Naturally, you'll need the basics -- name, media outlet, phone number and e-mail (if they didn't already provide it). You should have this anyway since you did the outreach, but ask and get it again. Many reporters have direct numbers or e-mail addresses that are more convenient. In addition, you'll want to ask direct questions. Try:

  • "Was there something specific you needed to know?"
  • "Is there a specific story you're working on?"
  • "Can you tell me more about what you'd like to ask so I can make sure I'm prepared?"
  • "Are you looking for some time to do an interview? How long do you think you'd need?"

Most importantly, ask about their deadline. I often ask if they need info for something they're working on for today. Knowing what kind of pressure they're under time-wise helps me budget my prep time. If it's best to schedule a time for the next day, that's great. If they need a quote in 10 minutes, that's different.

Many experienced reporters who reply by e-mail provide much of this information in the initial outreach so as to avoid the back-and-forth. But if they didn't -- and even if they did -- ask more questions. The more you know about what they want, the better.

5. Prepare and practice.

Because you took great notes and asked good questions when the reporter first called or replied, the better the info you can use yourself or give to your spokesperson. If there's an interview involved (and if you have the time), play the reporter and walk through it with your spokesperson. Go over potential questions and answers. If the interview is with you, do a mock interview with yourself several times before the real thing.

Related: 13 Ways to Get on a Journalist's Good Side

6. Remember your audience and message.

As you practice and prepare, remember the essential rule -- know your audience and your message. Getting that message to that audience is the entire goal. Don't forget it or stray from it. Include it in every piece of information or answer you can.

When you've done all that, call back. Or do the interview.

7. Don't be shy.

You'd be surprised by how many people mess up this part, but it's essential to remember that your job -- when you finally do the interview or get them information -- is to help the reporter. Not the other way around.

They're not as interested in telling your story as they are in telling a good, interesting story. The more you can help them do that with details, candor, color and background, the better everything will be.

And don't be afraid to say, "I don't know." So long as you follow it with, "But I'll find out and get back to you," you're more than fine. Don't make up information or guess. Nobody -- not the reporter or your company -- wants that. Get the details to them on the deadline you covered earlier, and it's never a problem.

Following these steps won't answer every question or apply every time, but they should help in nine out of 10 situations. And when you follow them, you'll be amazed by how good you and your company look and how clearly your message is delivered.

Related: How to Get Better Press Than Your Competitors

Derek Newton

NYC based communications and public relations professional

Derek Newton is a communications expert and writer based in New York City. He has been working in nonprofit, political and policy communications for more than 20 years and helped launch several startups. 

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