Deal with the media

People have given seminars, recorded tapes and written numerous articles, training materials and books on the subject: "How to deal with the media." An abundance of material also is available on related topics: "Responding to interviews," "Going on television/radio" and "Contacting reporters." When you boil it all down, what you have are a few key points that will keep you prepared for reporters.

Know your rights The reporter certainly has a right to ask questions, but you have rights too. Knowing your rights will assist you in accurately answering calls from reporters. It is easy to become flustered by an unexpected last-minute interview.

Never take a phone interview "cold." You should not begin answering questions immediately. First, find out the subject. On what event, issue or topic does the reporter have questions?

Are you the appropriate person to answer those questions? If not, suggest or offer to contact another spokesperson, then be sure to follow through.

If you're not familiar with the publication or broadcast group, find out about its audience, the coverage it gives your industry and industry issues on which it focuses, as well as the reporter's knowledge of the topic.

Find out what other sources the reporter is interviewing for his or her story.

Ask for the reporter's deadline and how long the interview might take. If it is to be a phone interview, ask to return the reporter's call in 5 to 10 minutes while you pull some references together or if you are in the midst of other work. This delay allows you time to coordinate your thoughts. Develop a "core" message, and write down key points you particularly wish to include in your comments.

Return the call, as promised, promptly and on time.

The reporter has a job to do-so do you An interview with the media is nothing to fear, and you should not consider the reporter an "enemy," unless you have grounds to know otherwise. The interview is your chance to express your side of an issue.

Be courteous and helpful but also be alert. Don't let a reporter "schmooze" or lead you into saying something you may regret later.

Be aware that the reporter's demeanor may quickly change from "nice guy" to tough questioner as the interview continues.

Take your time and think before you speak. Don't rush to answer or comment if you need a few seconds to frame a response.

Answer truthfully and accurately. Never answer "No comment;" it may appear that you are stonewalling or hiding information. If you don't know, say so. Offer to find out the information requested, then follow up as promised. More complaints of being misquoted or misunderstood arise from hasty remarks, speculative comments, and vague or rambling responses than from a reporter's mistakes.

When interviewing, you can declare something "off the record," which means the reporter can use this information only for background purposes. The reporter can't quote you as supplying that information. However, even though most reporters honor such a request, it is safest not to declare anything off the record. The reporter can only use what you say.

If possible, record phone interviews-at least your side of the conversation. If recording isn't convenient, take notes on the reporter's questions and your responses.

After the interview As the interview comes to a close, recall the questions you answered and other comments you made. Did you get your point across? Is there anything else you want to include? Remember, this is your opportunity to express your views.

Hold the reporter to the interview time limit he or she indicated earlier, unless you agree you need an extension. Set up another session, if necessary.

Again, be cordial. Offer to be available, should the reporter need more information or wish to double-check your responses. Be sure the reporter knows where and how to contact you.

The reporter may offer to let you review an article for accuracy before publishing. Say "Yes." This is more likely with local or industry media and scientific journals, or when the topic involves extensive detail.

If you are unable to record the interview, review and add to your notes while the interview is fresh in your mind for later reference, if needed.

What about radio or television? Many of the phone-interview tips apply whether for print or radio. Often, unless the reporter is covering a "breaking" story, he or she will tape your comments for reference and for editing later. Even so, it is important that your responses be concise, to-the-point and framed with short "sound bites" in mind. Stand up. You'll ramble less, and your responses will be more succinct and energetic.

Television is a different story. Your audience doesn't have to rely only on what you say and how you say it. Viewers will be able to see how you react, note your body "language" and get a visual impression of your credibility. (Research tells us that body language accounts for 55 percent of communication effectiveness in visual situations, voice tone about 38 percent and word choice only 7 percent.)

Usually, you will have time to prepare, to anticipate questions and practice your responses. Enlist a co-worker or two as a practice audience.

If you will be doing an in-studio interview, arrive early enough to become familiar with the setup, camera positions and to meet any other guests.

If you'll be in an on-location interview, suggest a site best suited to your story. For example, you may suggest one of your most successful landscaping projects rather than your office or equipment area.

Wear tasteful clothing. Plaids, bold stripes, wild ties and excessive jewelry are distracting and don't "play" well on camera-nor does extremely dark or light clothing. If at a location site, wear what you normally would in that situation (company work clothes or lab coat, for example).

Stick to your key points, return to them often and concentrate on your sound bites.

Take your time and think before answering. Unless it is a live broadcast, the reporter will edit out long pauses.

Above all: Relax. Be as comfortable as possible, and be yourself. No one expects you to be another Dan Rather or Diane Sawyer.

Keep this in mind: Your story, observations and comments are important. Otherwise, the reporter would not have contacted you. Stay abreast of the issues and the concerns of your industry. Be ready for that phone to ring!

Allen James is executive director of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), Washington, D.C.

Q. I've heard that lawn and garden pesticides can cause cancer. Is this true?

A. Documented evidence that lawn and garden pesticides cause cancer does not exist. Lawn and garden pesticides have not been shown to cause cancer in humans or pets. Still, the important advice is to read and follow directions on the label of any pest-control product. These directions have been designed to ensure safety and to assure the most effective results.

Q. Don't lawn and garden pesticides pollute the environment, especially water?

A. Again, the watchwords, "always read and follow application directions on the label," of any pest-control product apply. These directions, among other instructions, are explicit about delaying application if it is a windy day, or if precipitation is expected within a certain amount of time, usually 24 hours. By following directions, you can ensure that pesticide applications will not get into water supplies.

Q. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that we track in as much lawn pesticide onto our carpets as that which stays on the lawn after spraying. Isn't this a danger to infants and small children, especially since they are on the floor most of the time?

A. We must be concerned for the safety of our children, wherever they are and wherever they may play. The EPA must authorize the information on a pesticide label, and this includes the time recommended to keep children, adults and pets off newly treated areas, generally until spray has dried or the dust has settled after granular-product application. Parents can protect their children and pets by always reading and following label directions. In the case of a commercial application, the applicator should leave pertinent instructions with the customer.

Q. I am concerned with all the lawn spraying. Shouldn't there be signs?

A. Some municipalities require signage, and some have adopted voluntary "posting" of such information on lawns that have been treated. Some lawn-care companies do this regularly as a policy for consumers. Although no studies have been conducted, the current wisdom is that the information adds little to those safeguards already in place by following label directions.

Q. If pesticides are so controversial, why not just stop using them?

A. Because these products are safe and offer great value to landscape protection. Today's EPA-approved pesticide labels are so specific that-once followed-there is virtually no downside to safety. The key is to follow the directions on the label. More than 8 to 10 years of testing have gone into researching these products in virtually all conditions. Additionally, researchers have verified the results with more than 120 specific tests, many specific for human and environmental safety.

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