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.
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.
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?
corporate spokesmen are convinced that today's news media, or at
least their young reporters, are imbued with a fundamental bias
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 reporters 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.
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.
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.
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."
rules of the 'game'
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.
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.
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
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.
us now turn to the ten specific rules of effective communication
found most useful by corporate executives.
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.
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 companys 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
will hurt us, and in the end, it will endanger our employees' jobs."
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."
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.
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
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 products
packaging strewn across the landscape. Because this is the truth,
the public will find the entire story of the companys environmental
efforts more credible.
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
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."
Speak in personal terms whenever possible.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
If you do not want some statement quoted, do not
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.
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 reporters mind. What is said may be used, either directly
or as a basis for further probing elsewhere.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 reporters
If a question contains offensive language or simply
words you do not like, do not repeat them, even to deny them.
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 companys
profits this year as a bonanza?" If Mr. Jones bites, he will
answer, "No, our profits are not a bonanza."
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.
build more refineries and increase the oil supply, we're going to
need to earn much more money."
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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?"
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."
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.
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.
people understand that no one is perfect, that each of us makes
errors despite his or her best judgments and best efforts.
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.
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.
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.
Do not exaggerate the facts.
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
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
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
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:
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, Ive 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