CHESTER BURGER

How to Meet the Press
When you know the rules of the reporter’s ‘game,’ you can communicate your corporate story effectively and truthfully

From the Harvard Business Review
July - August 1975

Chester Burger Remembered :: VIDEO: Chester Burger Memorial, May 7, 2011 :: VIDEO: Chet Burger discusses the earliest days of TV news [New York University, March 2, 2010] :: Truth to Power: A tribute to PR pioneer and critic, Chet Burger :: New York Civic Leader Earns Highest Air Force Public Service Award :: About Chester Burger :: Career Overview :: USAF General, Chief of Staff Norton A. Schwartz Salutes Chet Burger :: Bringing Business and Consumers Closer Together :: Abraham Lincoln: Master Persuader :: How To Meet The Press :: Jesus, the Communicator :: Sooner Than You Think: Technology Pulling the World Together :: Public Opinion Is Decisive :: October 23, 2009: Ten Years Into the Future :: 1999 Interview for Jon J. Metzler's book on Management Consulting :: Leading Change :: Chet Burger celebrates his 81st birthday :: Lifetime Experiences in Dealing with Public Opinion and Public Relations Management

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Mr. Burger is president of Chester Burger & Co., Inc., a New York management-consulting firm serving corporate public relations departments and PR agencies. He formerly was national manager of CBS Television News. He is also the author of Survival in the Executive Jungle (Macmillan, 1964), Executives under Fire (Macmillan, 1966), and other management books.

One of the continuing problems facing a top executive or spokesman of any organization in times of stress or major change is how to tell his company's story to a press, radio, or television reporter. The dilemma is that the official is fearful of putting his foot in his mouth by saying the wrong things. He knows he is at a disadvantage in talking with a reporter who is skilled at asking provocative questions in order to get provocative, interesting, and controversial answers. But the advantage need not be so one-sided. As this author discusses, there are certain guidelines that any executive can learn and remember which will enable him to meet the press with no postmortems necessary.

Why cannot business find a way to tell its story through the news media? Is the press really dominated by hostile, anti-establishment reporters? Are leftist editors biting the business hand that feeds them?

Many corporate spokesmen are convinced that today's news media, or at least their young reporters, are imbued with a fundamental bias against business.

Journalist Edith Efron believes, for example, that American newsmen are hostile to business, to capitalism itself. Referring specifically to television, she writes: "The antagonism to capitalism on the nation's airwaves, the deeply entrenched prejudice in favor of state control over the productive machinery of the nation, is not a subjective assessment. It is a hard cultural fact."

That, however, is an assessment with which one can reasonably disagree. As NBC commentator David Brinkley reminds us, "When a reporter asks questions, he is not working for the person being questioned, whether businessman, politician, or bureaucrat, but he is working for the readers and listeners."

If indeed the working press, reporters, and correspondents bear an anti-business animosity, opinion polls tell us that such attitudes are quite representative of public opinion generally in the United States today. Rather than dismissing newsmen and news media as hostile, these may be the very ones to whom business ought to increase its communication, because they typify the attitudes of millions of Americans.

Further, while the corporate president often finds his life and circle of personal contacts circumscribed within the territory of his management team, his luncheon club, and his country club, the working reporter's duties bring him into daily contact with broad strata of the population, ranging from politicians to factory workers and activist leaders. He cannot be dismissed lightly. Nor should he be written off.

So it would seem essential for corporate presidents and spokesmen to learn how to tell their stories effectively to the press, radio, and television reporters. But there is more to it than that. Unless one knows how to tell what CBS commentator Eric Sevareid calls "the simple truth," one may fail to communicate. Although businessmen are as intelligent as members of the working press, they are unskilled in the art of effective communication.

As Bos Johnson, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says, "Businessmen are often so frightened or wary of the reporters that they come across looking suspicious. And there's no reason to be. They should put their best foot forward, speak out candidly, assuming they have nothing to hide."

A corporate president is not chosen for his outstanding ability to articulate corporate problems. He is selected by his hoard of directors because of his management know-how, or his financial expertise, or his legal proficiency, or whatever particular combination of these talents may be required by the immediate problems facing the company. In utilizing his own skills, he is usually very good indeed.

But the skills of management are not the same as those required to deal with the news media. Reporters, whether they are employed by television (where most people get their news these days), newspapers, magazines, or radio are trained in the skills of interviewing. They excel in their ability to talk with someone and unearth a newsworthy story, one that will stimulate their viewers or readers. That is why they were selected; that is their surpassing talent; and that is precisely what unnerves corporate managers who choose to face their questions.

The elaborate files of newspapers and the film and tape libraries of television stations are replete with examples of boners, indiscretions, and insensitive statements voiced by corporate spokesmen. My own experience, first as a television network news executive and later as a management consultant, convinces me that there is no more mysterious reason for management's failure to communicate effectively with the news media than what it simply does not know how.

Businessmen, rarely fearful of meeting their stockholders or their bankers, tremble before the newsman for fear he will accidentally or deliberately misquote them or pull their words out of context.

This can indeed happen, and it occasionally does But every reporter knows that if he sins or errs more than once or twice, his job will be endangered. Newspapers do not like to print corrections of their errors — only a few do — but editors like even less to see errors break into print or be broadcast on radio or television.

The problem usually is not with the reporters. They try to get things straight. More and more these days, in fact, they are showing up for interviews armed with cassette tape recorders. This is an encouraging trend for the businessman because it ensures more accurate quotation. It also frees the newsman from the note-taking burden so that he can concentrate on the subject under discussion.

But a recorded interview is hell for the executive who says the wrong things. If he puts his foot in his mouth, his words will be quotable and, most likely, quoted. No longer will he be able to blame the reporter for misquotation.

Business managers know from experience that newsmen will not hesitate to cover (i.e., write or film) a story that may be damaging to their company. From this perception, it is easy to conclude that the reporters are basically hostile to business. However, management often fails to understand that the reporter’s first responsibility is to produce a newsworthy story that will interest his audience. The reporter frankly does not care whether that "public interest story" will help or hinder the company. The reporter will select, from his bag of techniques, whatever method he believes will produce an interesting and informative story.

So the lesson is clear: if the corporate executive has something to say, he must present it to the reporter in an interesting way. A skilled reporter, hot on the trail of a noteworthy story, uses standard techniques to get it. Businessmen ought to know what these techniques are, and to decide that it is worth the effort to learn to cope with them. Kerryn King, Texaco's senior vice president-public affairs, put it sharply and well when he told a recent public relations conference: "Industry, and especially the petroleum industry, has an urgent need to dispel its reputation for secrecy and its reputation for indifference to public opinion that this supposed secrecy implies. I believe that when you once lay the full facts before a journalist, he is less likely to be taken in by critics who know less about your business than he does.

"The more information you can get out, the more light you can shed, especially on misunderstood economic matters, the better your standing with the public, in my opinion.

"A principal reason that people become frightened during a crisis is misinformation or noninformation. That is what moves them to action, whether that action be violence or demands for nationalization."

The rules of the 'game'

Rather than abandon the field to misinformation, it is better to learn the rules of critics, journalistic or otherwise. These guidelines are simple, and they can be learned. Hundreds, and probably several thousand corporate managers have learned them. They have discovered that when you know the rules of the reporter's "game," you can communicate your story effectively and truthfully, with no postmortems necessary.

For the businessman to be successful in speaking with press or public, there are two general criteria and ten specific guidelines to learn and remember. I shall present these respectively in the balance of this article.

General criteria
First, it is necessary to have a sound attitude. That attitude is not one of either arrogance or false humility. Rather, it is an attitude in which the business executive respects his own competence and greater knowledge of his own subject, but realistically recognizes that the reporter or critic is skilled in the art of asking provocative questions, hopefully to elicit provocative, interesting, and perhaps controversial answers.

Second, it is always wise to prepare carefully for a press interview. Never should an executive walk into a meeting with the press,' planning to "play it by ear" (i.e., to improvise). Preparation is essential. The best preparation consists of anticipating the most likely questions, attempting to research the facts, and structuring effective answers to be held ready for use. Probably it is unwise to carry such notes into the interview. It would be better instead to have the answers well in mind, although not literally memorized.

Specific guidelines

Let us now turn to the ten specific rules of effective communication found most useful by corporate executives.

1


Talk from the viewpoint of the public's interest, not the company's.


This important rule presents difficulties for most corporate presidents and senior executives. Their difficulty is understandable. When you have spent years struggling to manage the company, it is difficult to step back and look at your problem and your own company from a different perspective.

For example, often during negotiations for a new union contract, corporate spokesmen will tell the press, in effect, "We can't afford the increase the union is asking." That may be true, but why should the public bc concerned with the company’s financial problems? Employees often respond with hostility and resentment. It is much better to say, "We'd like to give our employees the increase they seek. But if our costs go up too much, our customers won't buy.

That will hurt us, and in the end, it will endanger our employees' jobs."

Or an electric utility challenged, say, on its policy of requiring deposits from new customers, may respond, since it is a truthful answer, "We don't like to ask for deposits because they annoy our customers; they're a nuisance to us. Also, we have to pay interest on the money."But we don't think it fair that you should have to pay part of someone else's electric bill when he fails to pay. And that's just what happens: the cost of his service is passed along to all other users. If a new customer pays his bills promptly for six months, we refund his deposit, and we're glad to do it."

Sometimes, in their efforts to present their story from the public viewpoint, companies seem to assume the pose of philanthropic institutions. They claim to be acting in and serving the public interest in whatever course of action they are following. And indeed this may be true.

But to a skeptical public, such talk falls on unhearing ears. The public knows, or believes, that a company primarily acts in its own self-interest. When this self-interest is not frankly admitted, credibility is endangered.

So it is desirable always to indicate your company's position in a given course of action. The soft-drink bottler who launches a campaign for collecting and recycling of its containers can frankly admit that it does not want to irritate the public by having its product’s packaging strewn across the landscape. Because this is the truth, the public will find the entire story of the company’s environmental efforts more credible.

Every industry has its own language, its own terminology. When a corporate spokesman uses company lingo, he knows exactly what he means. But the public generally does not. So speak in terms the ordinary citizen can understand.

Instead of saying, "Our management is considering whether to issue equity or debt," it might be better to say, "We are considering whether to sell more stock in our company, or to try to borrow money by issuing bonds."

2


Speak in personal terms whenever possible.

Any corporation, even one of modest size, involves many people in decision making and other activities. So corporate executives early in their careers learn never to say "I," but rather "we" or "the company."

When dozens or a hundred people have worked on developing a new product or adopting a new policy, it becomes difficult if not impossible for anyone connected with the project to say "I." Yet the words "the company," or "we", only reinforce the public image of corporations as impersonal monoliths in which no one retains his individuality or has any individual responsibility.

To avoid reinforcing this impression, if an executive has participated in a project he is proud of, he should be encouraged to speak in the first person and to reflect that pride. For example, "I was one of the team that worked on this product. My job involved the product design." Of course, it is wrong to claim personal credit where it has not been earned. But the top executive who can speak in terms of his personal experience will always make a favorable impression.

Executives sometimes even hesitate to use the term "we" because they are reluctant to speak officially on behalf of the company. Unless they have been properly authorized by management, their reluctance is justified. But when middle-level or even lower-level managers have been carefully briefed and know the answers to the questions under discussion, they often make quite effective company spokesmen.

One telephone company, for example, invited its chief operators to speak to the press on its behalf in small communities where their position had considerable esteem. In this case, if a chief operator discussed local matters within her range of responsibility, such as changes in local telephone rates, she would provide considerable credibility. The press and public would rightfully assume she knew from personal involvement what she was talking about. But if she were to discuss overall corporate financing, obviously her credibility would vanish.

3


If you do not want some statement quoted, do not make it.

Corporate spokesmen should avoid "off-the-record" statements. There is no such thing as "off-the-record." If a company president tells something to a reporter off the record, it may not be used with his name attached. But it may well turn up in the same published article, minus his name, and with a qualifying phrase added, "Meanwhile, it has been learned from other sources that…" The damage is done.

Therefore, an experienced company officer quickly learns that if he does not want something published or used, he should not divulge it to the reporter on any basis. And although naive company officials sometimes assume that an invisible line divides informal conversation from the beginning of the formal interview, no such dividing line exists in the reporter’s mind. What is said may be used, either directly or as a basis for further probing elsewhere.

The same off-the-record rule applies to telephone conversations with the media: whether or not you hear a beep, your words may be recorded. A recording makes it impossible for you to deny later what the reporter has taped in your own voice.

4


State the most important fact at the beginning.

Years of training and experience, often without conscious thought, have accustomed the typical corporate executive to respond to questions in a particular way. If the executive is asked, "What should we do about our new product?" he will frequently respond along these lines, "We are facing shortages of plastics. And their cost is rising so fast I don't think we can price the product at an attractive level. Moreover, we have a labor shortage in the plant. So I recommend we don't take any action now to develop the product."

The executive's format lists the facts that lead to his final conclusion and recommendation. But such organization of his material will fail when it is used in talking with the news media. There are both psychological and technical reasons why.

Psychologically, we tend to remember most clearly the first thing that is said, not the last. So when you speak to a reporter, you should turn your statement around to begin with the conclusion, "We don't plan to develop the product. We are facing materials shortages. Our costs are going up, and we also have a shortage of skilled labor." In such a reverse format, the most important statement is likely to be best remembered: "We don't plan to develop the new product."

Technical consideration in printing and production are also an important reason for giving your conclusion first. The newspaper reporter who writes the story seldom knows in advance how much space will be available for its publication. So he has been trained to put the most important fact at the beginning, using subsequent paragraphs to report items of declining importance. If the most important fact is buried at the bottom of the story, it may simply be chopped off in the composing room to fit the available space.

On television, time pressures and broadcast deadlines often make it impossible to screen all filmed material for selection of the best footage; frequently, program producers or news editors are compelled to select segments from the beginning of a film. So, I repeat, the most important fact should be stated first. Afterward, it can be explained at whatever length is necessary; but even if the full explanation is cut, the initial statement will survive.

5


Do not argue with the reporter or lose your cool.


Understand that the newsman seeks an interesting story and will use whatever techniques he needs to obtain it. An executive cannot win an argument with the reporter in whose power the published story lies. Since the executive has initially allowed himself to be interviewed, he should use the interview as an Opportunity to answer questions in a way that will present his story fairly and adequately.

If a reporter interrupts the executive, it is not rudeness; it is a deliberate technique that means he is not satisfied with the corporate response he is hearing. The solution is for the executive to respond more directly and more clearly.

An executive should never ask questions of the reporter out of his own anger and frustration. I remember the following example:
     Reporter: How many black executives do you have in your company?
     Executive: [Irritated] Damn it, how many black editors do you have on your paper?
     Reporter: I'm here to ask you the questions.

An executive may occasionally win the battle with that sort of tactic, but he will always lose the war. The reporter, not the executive, will write the story. The published interview will reflect the reporter’s own hostility.

6


If a question contains offensive language or simply words you do not like, do not repeat them, even to deny them.

Reporters often use the gambit of putting words into the subject's mouth. It is easy. Politicians do it, too. The technique works like this: the reporter includes colorful, provocative language in his question. For example, "Mr. Jones, wouldn't you describe your oil company’s profits this year as a bonanza?" If Mr. Jones bites, he will answer, "No, our profits are not a bonanza."

When Senator Abraham Ribicoff asked a similar question during the ------ Senate Committee hearings, President Harry Bridges of Shell Oil Company (USA) was trapped. That is exactly how he did answer, And his answer was headlined "Oil Profits No Bonanza, Executive Says." Even though Bridges denied the charge, in the public's mind he associated the world "oil profits" with "bonanza." He might have answered the question this way: "Senator, our profits aren't high enough.

To build more refineries and increase the oil supply, we're going to need to earn much more money."

Most executives have never noticed, but the reporter knows well that his questions will not be quoted in his article; only the interviewee's answers will be. It is not important, therefore, whether a reporter asks a question loaded with hostile and inaccurate language; the important thing is how the question is answered. As long as an executive does not repeat the offensive language, even to deny it, it will not appear in the published report.

On some occasions, overzealous reporters have even been known, with dubious ethics, to ask an executive to comment on a so-called "fact," which may be an outright untruth. The quoted "fact" has the ring of plausibility.

For example, one reporter asked a plant manager, "Ecology Magazine says your plant is one of the worst polluters in this state. Would you care to comment on that?"

The manager immediately became defensive and insisted to the reporter that his plant did not really pollute too badly, considering all the other sources of pollution in the local river. The manager did not know that no magazine called Ecology exists. The false quotation had been manufactured by the reporter. But it served its purpose. It put the manager on the defensive and induced him to talk. The reporter's false "quotation" was never published.

If you are asked a question based on a "fact" about which you are uncertain, be wary of a trap. The so-called "fact" may indeed be a fact, but if you are not sure, it is better to dissociate yourself from it. You might say, "I'm not familiar with that quotation," and then proceed to answer the question in your own positive way.

7


If the reporter asks a direct question, he is entitled to an equally direct answer.

Sometimes, executives who have been interviewed fail to make the points they wanted to make, and then they blame the reporter. Usually, it is their own fault. They have been playing what is called the "ping-pong game." The reporter asks a question; they answer it He asks another; they answer it. Back and forth the ball bounces, but the executive does not know how to squeeze in what he regards as his important points.

This common error in dealing with the press is one the executive is particularly prone to make. Management training accustoms executives to answer questions directly, without undue amplification. Such conduct is appropriate when talking with the boss, but it is inappropriate when talking with a reporter. Here amplification is often in order.

Corporate officers incorrectly assume that they somehow protect themselves by giving simple yes or no answers to questions. Their theory is that the less said, the better. The yes or no answer is not, however, interesting to a reporter. Usually, he will react by provoking the executive in the hope of obtaining a more informative and colorfully expressed response.

This rule is not intended to suggest that an executive answer with either evasion or wordiness. But interviewees should not stop with a one-word response. Instead, they should amplify the point until they have said what they want to say.

For example, suppose a reporter asks, "Aren't you still polluting the air and river?" The answer should be positive and broad, rather than simply "No." A factory manager might respond, "Protecting the environment in Jonesville concerns us greatly. We've eliminated the major sources of pollution. The smoke from our factories is gorne; we spent $3 million to purify the exhaust fumes from our furnaces. We've added filters to remove waste from water that flows back into the river. But we stil1 haven't solved the problem of cooling our waste water, and we are working hard on that."

8


If an executive does not know the answer to a question, he should simply say, "I don't know, but I'll find out for you."

However, if the executive replies simply, "I don't know," it might appear to the reporter or viewer that he is being evasive. So executives are advised never to answer "I don't know" alone, but always to qualify the answer with a phrase like, "I'll put you in touch with someone else who can answer that for you," or similar words. Of course, the executive then assumes the responsibility of following through to ensure that the requested information is provided promptly.

Occasionally, a reporter will ask a question which the executive does not wish to answer. There may be a legal reason, say, because the company is in registration in connection with a new securities issue. Or the requested information may be a proprietary company secret. In such circumstances, the recommended course is to respond directly, without evasion or excuses, "I'm sorry. I can't give you that information."

However, if the question seems appropriate, and it usually is, it is desirable to explain to the reporter why his question cannot be answered. Executives are cautioned never to "play dumb," deny knowledge, or give anything other than a forthright refusal.

9


Tell the truth, even if it hurts.

In this era of skepticism, hostility, and challenge, the fact remains that the most difficult task of all sometimes is simply telling the truth. This rule can be embarrassing for the executive and the company.

Neither individuals nor corporations (groups of individuals) like to be embarrassed. So to avoid embarrassment, they sometimes tell the press and public half-truths which are (half-lies).

Understandably, nobody likes to admit that business is bad, that employees must be laid off, that a new product introduction has been unsuccessful, that the company has "goofed" in one way or another. Yet telling the truth remains the best answer.

How much truth should a company tell? My experience answers, "As much as the reporter wants to know." When an executive change is announced, probably 99 out of 100 reporters will be satisfied with that bare fact, and ask nothing more. But once in a while a keen reporter may respond, "Mr. Jones, I've heard that you held Mr. Smith responsible for the severe drop in earnings your company had last year. Is that true?"

First of all, if the allegation were true, I would not deny it, denial would only lead to a loss of credibility later when the reporter confirmed it from another source But neither would I invite a libel suit from Mr. Smith by blaming him for the company's problems. So the question might be answered, factually but tactfully, "When economic conditions are difficult, companies frequently make management changes and that's what we've done."

Executives, already fearful of the power of the press, find themselves terrified at the thought of having to report bad tidings. Countless examples can be found in the business press of attempts to conceal, or to grudgingly admit only portions of the truth, when it is unfavorable to the company.

My experience, however, convinces me that while the press and public do not like to hear bad news and will judge the company or its management adversely because of it, fair-minded people will understand that the difficulties of management make unavoidable a certain number of errors in judgment.

Thoughtful people understand that no one is perfect, that each of us makes errors despite his or her best judgments and best efforts.

What the public will not understand or tolerate, however, is dishonesty. Concealment and lying will be neither forgotten nor forgiven by the press and public alike. Evidence exists to confirm this. An example can be found in the aviation industry.

In earlier years, whenever a commercial airliner crashed, certain airlines had standing policies to rush work crews to the site and to paint out the company name and emblems on the wrecked aircraft before photographs were permitted.

Today, that policy has changed. Most carriers currently cooperate fully with the media, furnish all available information, and provide all assistance needed for news coverage. The theory; and I believe it is the correct one, is that the crash will be reported anyway; the name of the airline will be headlined anyway; so it is better to cooperate with the press and get the story covered and forgotten as quickly as possible.

10


Do not exaggerate the facts.

The American Bakers Association may have done just that. The president of the Public Relations Society of America, James F. Fox of New York, commented in a 1974 speech: "Last winter, we heard a great deal about an imminent wheat shortage and bread at a dollar a loaf this spring. Well, spring has about two weeks to go; the cost of wheat is down a little, and bread is nowhere near one dollar a loaf. What was that all about? Under Secretary of Agriculture J. Phil Campbell suggested that the bakers' move to reinstitute stockpiling was motivated by their desire to have government maintain wheat reserves to carry inventory for the industry and lower its costs.

"I don't know whether that's the whole story or even a part of it. It isn't necessary that we settle the facts here; whether, as Campbell implies, the industry's self-interest overcame its discretion, or it was depending in good faith on bad information or inadequate protections.

"What does concern us is that the American Bakers Association looks a little foolish now. It's going to be that much harder for them to make themselves heard and believed next time, when they might just be right."

Telling the business story to an apathetic or hostile nation is not easy, but it is worth doing, and it can be done successfully. As one senior executive in an engineering company told me:

"I've been interviewed frequently over the past 20 years, and every time afterward, I felt sorry for myself. But now, I realize that I just didn't know the rules of the reporter's game. Since I started playing the game too, I’ve had a much better press. In one case, I even got a sympathetic newspaper editorial in one of our plant communities, where we always used to get clobbered. It's convinced me to look on a press interview as an opportunity, rather than as a cause for fear.''

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