Refer to these guidelines when preparing for interaction with the media.
Here’s a cheat sheet for what do when a reporter calls.
Find out what the interview is about
You should never go into an interview unprepared. Find out what the story is about, give yourself time to prepare, do some fact-checking, then call back.
Know your message
Once you know what you’ll be talking about, write three to five key messages you want to get across. Rehearse saying them aloud, and have them available for reference, but don’t read them verbatim to the reporter.
This is an interview
It’s not a conversation with a colleague. The media report stories for a general audience who probably know very little about this topic. That’s why it’s news. Be warm and friendly, but also remember this is the reporter’s job. The reporter may not have much time for small talk.
It’s always on the record
Each reporter defines “off the record” differently. It’s best to not even go that road. Generally, information that is “off the record” may not be attributed to you, but that doesn’t mean the reporter won’t use it or try to confirm the information with a different source.
Speak in short, clear sentences. Long, complicated sentences won’t get used. Trust us. Try to get the main message out in 20 seconds or less.
Don’t lie or make up an answer. If you don’t know the answer, say so. Tell the reporter you’ll try to get an answer after the interview.
The Public Information Office is here to help you.
When a reporter reaches out
When a reporter contacts you, here are a few questions to consider.
Are you the right source?
The first question is whether you’re the right source and whether you should grant the interview. Ask the reporter these questions
- What is the story about? What is the angle? What do you hope I can add?
- What’s the deadline?
- What outlet do you work for? What medium is it?
- What’s nature of the interview? In person? By phone? By email? On camera? Taped? Live?
- Where will the interview be done? How long will it be?
Most reporters expect you to ask at least some of these questions and should be able to answer all of them. Ask yourself:
- Do you I expertise in this area? Is my manager a better person? Someone else on campus?
- Is this something we should be commenting about?
- Do I have time?
- Should I refer this to the Public Information Office?
The staff in the Public Information Office work with many different reporters with many different mediums and can help you understand what sort of commitment may be required. The staff members can also provide more information about the outlet and related coverage. If you can’t speak with the reporter—maybe you’re not the best source, maybe the timing isn’t good, maybe you just prefer not to comment—please call the Public Information Office. The staff may be able to help the reporter by suggesting other sources.
A reporter is almost always on deadline
It’s probably today, too. This is what reporters do. They wake up and start reporting on whatever is today’s news. Their editors expect them to meet their deadline. Sometimes, a reporter may be working on a longer deadline. If the news is breaking, say a Supreme Court decisions, they may want a comment right now. Being mindful of a reporter’s deadline is an important step in building a good working relationship.
Draft your main messages
If you’ve decided to do the interview, you should decide on three to five key points that can be shared in 20 seconds or less. These will help you focus on what you hope to share with the reporter. Ask yourself:
- What’s the issue?
- What’s your role in the issue?
- Why’s it important?
- What’s the historical perspective?
Answering the questions
The best way to get your message across is to answer the question, provide supporting information, transition to your message, and state your message. For example, “Is UC Santa Cruz an inclusive campus?”
- First Sentence Make a statement that answers the question as briefly as possible. “Yes” or “no” often is sufficient. Yes, it is.
- Second Sentence Support your answer. A recent systemwide survey revealed that 83 percent of respondents were comfortable or very comfortable with the campus climate.
- Third Sentence Transition into your message. Our diversity certificate program offers participants an in-depth examination of diversity and differences in order to gain a greater understanding of how we can work together to build a stronger and more inclusive UC Santa Cruz community.
- Fourth Sentence State your message. We want to ensure our campus is welcoming for everyone.
Find other sources
In addition to interviewing someone, reporters often appreciate having reports, studies, stories or press releases that can help inform them about the subject, especially if it’s complex. The Public Information Office may have a press release or a set of facts on the subject. Otherwise, staff members can help you in pulling together other materials, such as brochures, statistics, or other documents.
There may be tough questions
If the subject is controversial—and many are—expect that the reporter is talking with the other side. Write down the 10 toughest questions you might be asked about this topic and also the 10 toughest questions about UC Santa Cruz. Take the time to think about how you can go from answering these questions while still delivering one of your key messages. Additionally, the Public Information Office can help you think about and prepare for these questions. Your colleagues and friends often can provide good sounding boards as well. Remember that we’re on your side, even if we’re asking some uncomfortable questions.
Review the questions until you feel that you can answer each one. Record your answers and listen to them. Staff with the Public Information Office can help you prepare. But when you’re on the phone, don’t read your answers. Speak naturally. And if you get lost in a sentence, say “Let me start over.”
Take a deep breath
Most interviews are your 15 minutes of fame, a time to share with the public something exciting about UC Santa Cruz. Be personable and confident.
During an interview
Get your messages across
Have we said that before? Here it is again. Come to an interview prepared with your messages and find opportunities to get them across without ignoring the reporter’s questions. Take the initiative. You are the expert. You know what is important to tell the public – so tell them.
Be informative, not conversational
News interviews are exchanges of information. You are the source of that information; the reporter represents the public. Do not feel obligated to maintain the social rules of conduct that guide conversations. Beware of the reporter who remains silent, encouraging you to ramble or dilute your original message. It’s human nature to want to fill those lulls with conversation. Don’t.
Reporters generally don’t want lengthy, drawn-out explanations. They’re looking for good quotes – a punchy line that will fill three lines of newsprint or 20 seconds of air time. Use your 20 seconds to get your message across – there’s much more likelihood it will be used. Knowing what you want to say in advance will go a long way in simplifying your answers. Forty-five seconds is about the maximum response time for television and other media as well, unless the reporter truly wants a complete understanding of, for example, neutrino physics – in which case you may have 90 seconds.
Don’t go off the record
There is no such thing as off the record. An “off-the-record” comment may not be attributed to you directly, but the reporter often will use the information to confirm a story with other sources. If you don’t want something to appear in print, don’t say it.
Know your role
When you are conducting an interview, understand your role. If you are serving as a spokesperson for the university – or in some instances as spokesperson for a given committee or organization – remember: reporters will not distinguish between personal opinion and the university’s position – and neither will the public. Answer questions appropriately. If you don’t know the university’s position on a particular issue, find out; don’t speculate. If you are providing commentary, opinion or perspective for a news story, and have not been designated as a spokesperson for the university, make certain reporters understand you are offering your own views as a scholar, researcher or expert in a field.
Separating the university from personal advocacy
Public employees are prohibited from using their office to advocate political causes. If you are involved in a political campaign, be sure to separate your university and private duties. You may not, for example, use your office letterhead to write a letter urging a vote for or against a particular candidate or ballot measure. You can, however, give reasons why the person or cause would benefit or harm the institution. However, be certain you have clearly identified any offered opinion as your own and not a position given on behalf of the university. Additional latitude may be allowed when the UC Board of Regents has taken a stand on an issue. If you have questions regarding these regulations, Communications and Marketing can assist you in getting them answered.
Don’t use jargon
Avoid using terms or acronyms that can’t be quoted without explanation.
- Don’t say: “We’re pleased that such a high percentage of students returned their SIRs.”
- Do say: “We’re pleased that so many students intend to register at UC Santa Cruz.”
Say what you mean
Avoid bureaucratic language: “It is clear that much additional work will be required before we have a complete understanding of the issue.” Instead, say, “We’re working on it.”
Tell the truth
The truth may hurt, but lies are deadly. You probably will get caught, and reporters don’t forget sources who have “burned” them. Give a direct answer when asked a direct question, even if the answer is “No,” “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question.” You will come across as an honest, forthright person.
These are reporters, not physicists or physicians. You may have to begin at the beginning to help them understand an issue.
Don’t lose your temper
Sometimes reporters are intentionally rude to elicit a charged response. Don’t fall into the trap. Respond politely, in control at all times. Don’t get into arguments – your angry comments may be reported without any mention of the provocation.
It’s an interview, not an interrogation. Establish rapport with the reporter.
Don’t answer a question with a question
The reporters asks, “What do you think about affirmative action?” Don’t say, “What do you mean by affirmative action?” Or, “What do you think about it?” Such responses come across as evasive, pejorative, or hostile.
Don’t say “No comment” or “I can neither confirm nor deny.” The public views this as: “I know but I won’t say.” Instead, tell the reporter that you are unable to comment and, if possible, why. If a reporter asks about a document that is in draft form, for example, tell the reporter: “I’m sorry, this is a working draft, and I’ll be able to comment as soon as it becomes public.” Offer to let the reporter know when the document is available.
Don’t answer when you shouldn’t
If you know the answer to a question but can’t say, don’t hesitate to refer the reporter elsewhere – to Communications and Marketing if you’re unsure where that appropriate elsewhere might be. Don’t forget to let other offices know when you have referred a reporter.
- Question: “I understand John Doe is about to be appointed as a distinguished professor. Is that true?”
- Answer: “I’m sorry but I just can’t answer that question for you. The appropriate office to answer all faculty appointment questions is the executive vice chancellor’s office. You should call there.”
Again, don’t answer questions if you are not the appropriate spokesperson. If a reporter presses, repeat your answer. Don’t waver. (And don’t go off the record.)
If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. And be sure you offer to either find the answer or find someone else who knows. Don’t guess, thinking the reporter will check elsewhere. There’s a good chance your misinformation will appear in print.
It’s okay to make a mistake
The tape is rolling and you realize you’ve made a mistake. Or, more likely, you suddenly find you have no idea what you’re saying. Stop. Say, “I’m sorry, I haven’t answered your question very well. Let me back up.” The reporter usually will prefer your new, crisp response.
Talk from the public’s point of view
Remember that you are talking through the reporter to the public. How does what you are talking about affect individuals in the community? How does it affect their children’s education? Say it in terms readers and viewers can relate to. If, for example, there was a toxic spill on campus, the public wouldn’t care much how quickly it was cleaned up or how many workers dedicated themselves to the effort. The public wants to know whether their health is in danger.
Reporters love facts and figures that will lend credibility to their stories or make certain points. But don’t exaggerate facts by using superlatives that make things sound bigger and better than they are.
Be prepared to repeat yourself
Reporters may repeat their question because your answer was too long, too complex, they didn’t understand you, or they’re simply trying to get a more pithy response. Welcome the question as another opportunity to state your message, perhaps more clearly.
You’re the expert. You have a message to deliver. Recognize that reporters in fact may be somewhat intimated by your expertise or position. Put them at ease.
Respect the reporter’s deadline
Find out their deadlines and return calls promptly. Showing respect for deadlines will go a long way toward building positive media relations. If you can’t return a reporter’s call, please contact Communications and Marketing to assist you.
Don’t be defensive
Make positive statements instead of denying or refuting comments from others. State your message; let others speak for themselves.
Be aware of when you are being taped
In broadcast situations, such as in the studio or when talking to a radio reporter, it is wise to assume that everything you say is being recorded.
Use anecdotes, humor
Use examples to illustrate your points. What will sell a story about, say, graduate fellowships, are not statistics but human interest about real students with real accomplishments. Use humor, an interesting quote. Television in particular is “show business” so entertain when appropriate.
Avoid reading from prepared statements
This is especially true when you are on camera. You are the expert and ought to know what you want to say without a “script.”
Never ask a reporter to preview the story
Reporters generally never let sources review stories, though they often check back for scientific details. Remember, it’s their job to gather the facts and tell the story accurately – to suggest they can’t do so without your input insults their professionalism. Besides, they won’t let you, so there’s little point in asking. It’s better to listen carefully during an interview to be aware of when a reporter may not understand something. Remember that the likelihood of your being misquoted is reduced substantially if you speak briefly and clearly.
Most are concerned with honesty, accuracy, getting the story straight and getting it first. A few are openly biased or flagrantly antagonistic – reporters who try to make you lose your cool and say something you’ll regret. All reporters, however, have one primary goal: to get information. They may use interviewing techniques that are difficult to handle.
The reporter lists three to five items to build a case and then asks the “loaded” question. Begin by either accepting or countering the statements, then bridge to your message.
- Question: “Only X percent of your faculty are women. Only X percent are black. A mere X percent are Chicano. Don’t you think this displays a history of discriminatory hiring practices?”
- Answer: “While your statistics are correct, your conclusion is not. Let’s look at the record today. This year, X percent of our hires were women and minorities. UC Santa Cruz is committed to achieving faculty diversity.”
The reporter asks you to choose between one extreme or the other, neither being acceptable.
- Question: “Would you rather sacrifice research excellence for teaching excellence or become a leader in science at the expense of undergraduate education?”
- Answer: “Neither extreme is acceptable. At UC Santa Cruz, teaching and research programs complement each other, and we are committed to excellence in both.”
The reporter creates a hypothetical situation and follows up with a specific question. Don’t respond to the hypothetical; state your message.
- Question: “Imagine that there was a donor who wanted to give $10 million to establish a basket weaving school at UC Santa Cruz, when the campus has no intention of starting a basket weaving school. Would you accept the gift and start such a school, or would you tell the donor to get lost?”
- Answer: “I don’t know anything about your hypothetical situation. Your question seems to concern our gift acceptance policies. At UC Santa Cruz, we work very hard with our donors to ensure that their interests are served while our needs are met.”
If reporters don’t give up, don’t try to go back and answer in a manner that will make them happy. You might rephrase your answer, but stick to your message.
- Question: “But what would happen if the interests weren’t the same? Would you take the money?”
- Answer: “Again, you’re referring to a hypothetical situation that I don’t know about. We work closely with our donors on a personal level to ensure that they and the campus gain mutual benefit.”
Commenting on others’ comments
Essentially, the reporter is asking you to speak for someone else. Don’t do it, especially if you did not hear the individual make the statement yourself. It’s possible the person was misquoted.
Divide and conquer
Reporters may want to divide you from your superiors or colleagues by asking, “How would YOU handle this?” If something is out of your area of expertise, say so. Then bridge to your message.
- Question: “How would you go about increasing faculty diversity?”
- Answer: “I am not the one who does the hiring at the university. But I can tell you it is every faculty members’ responsibility to create a welcoming environment for all cultures.”
False premises and conclusions
Reporters’ questions may contain false premises. Respond by countering immediately or a viewer may accept the false premise.
- Question: “When are you going to improve undergraduate education?”
- Answer: “I believe students are getting a good education now, and one of the things we are doing to ensure this is…”
Reporters may paraphrase one of your answers to get you to agree to it and then they use only your agreement to the new statement.
- Question: “You mean students didn’t used to get a good education?”
- Answer: “Let me restate my answer so that there is not misunderstanding. I believe students…”
Never repeat a reporter’s negative statements. Reporters sometimes ask questions in a hostile manner. When responding, turn the sentence around and stress the positive. Use your own words; don’t repeat a reporter’s hostile question filled with buzzwords. Remember, they will quote you, not themselves.
- Question: “Some students have told me they get a lousy education at the University of California.”
- Don’t answer: “I don’t think the education is lousy.”
- Do answer: “I believe students get a very good education at the university.”
Continue with an example of an education program. Transition into your message, which may be that research conducted at the UC keeps faculty at the very top of their fields.
The reporter asks a string of questions simultaneously. Let them build a trap. Use body language (your hand) to stop it. Then respond by simply answering the one question that you most want to answer, ignoring the other parts, then bridge to your message.
The reporter interrupts you while you’re trying to answer a question. Respond politely, yet firmly: “Let me finish answering your last question first…”
Beware of the reporter who remains silent, encouraging you to ramble on and on. Once you feel you’ve answered the question, stop. If you continue, you may end up providing them with more angles to pursue. There are several things you can do to fill an embarrassing silence. You can ask, “Do youid=”AfteranInterview-Whenwillthestoryappear?” have any other questions?” You can ask, “Have I answered your question?” or you can just remain silent.
If you feel the reporter is setting you up, chances are you’re right. Reporters often think they know the answers before they’ve asked the questions. Let them know that you are the expert.
It’s not uncommon for reporters to ambush a news source outside their office or home. Respond as if the reporter had called you on the phone. You might ask what the story is about and when they need the information. Tell the reporter when you or someone else will be able to get back to them. You are not obligated to consent to the ambush interview if you are unprepared or the time is inconvenient.
When asked a question on top of a question
Slow down. Patiently answer one question at a time. The reporter often will look rude in these situations.
When heckled by a questioner
Be sensitive to the feel of the interview. You may want to answer a question very briefly or be silent while the reporter continues. Keep your cool.
When asked a tough question
Avoid such platitudes as, “That’s a very good question” or “I’m glad you asked that question.” The audience recognizes such devices as obvious stalls. It is all right to pause briefly before responding. Dead time is seldom aired on the news, and silences obviously can’t be quoted in print. If your interview is live, a short pause often will give the impression that you wish to make a thoughtful response.
- Avoid saying, “Well, as I said in my speech” or “I already told you…” These responses sound as if you’re insulting the reporter.
- Use the reporter’s first name, showing that you still feel friendly in the face of the difficult questions.
- You may want to rephrase the question, giving your audience a chance to hear it in your words: “If I understand your question correctly, you’re asking…”
- In all cases, if you disagree with something a reporter or talk show host has said, you must counter it. If you don’t, the audience can only assume that you agree.
In an emergency
Media attention during an emergency can be extremely intrusive. But remember that the public will know virtually nothing but what they are told by the press, so it is imperative that the media be dealt with efficiently and effectively. During an emergency, such as a fire or toxic spill, public information officers are called in to help staff the emergency services command post. Their job is to collect, coordinate and disseminate verified information to the news media. It’s a fact of life, however, that reporters don’t just station themselves at the command post to await official information. They’ll interview bystanders, seek out other administrators for comment or call faculty and students who may be involved in or affected by the emergency.
A few things to remember during an emergency:
- Refer reporters to public information officers who are working with emergency personnel. They can contact campus police or another emergency services agencies, such as the city of Santa Cruz Police Department, if necessary for information on contacting a command post.
- Concern for people will come first to emergency personnel and should come first to all those who comment on a particular incident.
- Don’t deny the obvious by trying to minimize what is a serious disaster or tragedy.
- Do not speculate or place blame. A reporter might tell you, “I heard the fire was caused by an explosion in your laboratory.” Don’t speculate on what chemicals could have started the fire; remind the reporter that they will have to get this kind of information from the command post.
- Don’t forget that privacy regulations apply during disasters and other incidents. For example, a student’s arrest doesn’t give you freedom to discuss disciplinary actions you may have initiated against the student in the past.
Nearly all reporters who call UC Santa Cruz are from the print media, yet the campus aggressively pursues television and radio coverage because of its broad exposure. The following guidelines apply primarily to those television interviews, but they will help you make the right impression for all media. The intent of these guidelines is to minimize distractions, allowing the reporter and the viewers to concentrate on what you’re saying.
Basic Delivery Tips
You would be surprised how much of your voice gets lost when you start talking into a microphone. Speak up. Smile when it’s appropriate. Long after you have appeared on a television or radio show, people will remember you and the impression you made. That impression should be of a confident, thoughtful, caring individual.
Be prepared for a necessary closeness with a television interviewer, for the camera’s sake. You may be rubbing shoulders or bumping knees with the interviewer, or talking with a microphone in your face. Don’t back away.
Gestures are a means of using stress energy effectively. Don’t be afraid to use them; though don’t point at the reporter or camera.
Sit up straight. Don’t swivel or rock. Cross your legs at the knees or sit with your legs at a 45 degree angle in the chair, legs crossed at ankles or feet together, one in front of the other. In the television studio, don’t jump out of your seat too quickly. The show’s credits may be rolling over the scene of you sitting on the set. Consider yourself on camera until the show’s director says you are finished. Do not lean on the arm rest of the chair, you look too casual. Lean forward a little, showing interest, not back, showing fear or indifference.
Stand up straight. Beware of slouching and tilted shoulders. Don’t rock forward and back or sway side to side. Keep your hands at your sides or bend your elbows slightly at your waist. Don’t put your hands in your pockets, don’t hold them in front of you and don’t cross your arms over your chest. If you are uncomfortable with your hands at your sides, try holding a notebook or other “prop.”
Hold your head high. Don’t tilt it to one side. Beware of being an “active listener” and nodding in apparent agreement to comments with which you may not agree.
TV cameras get much closer to your face than most people, so your eye movement is critical. Don’t look at the camera. Look at the reporter 100 percent of the time. Focus on the bridge of their nose if you’re uncomfortable looking into their eyes continuously. Pay attention to what’s happening or you may be embarrassed when the camera catches your eyes wandering. Don’t look up at the ceiling (“God help me!”) or down at the floor (“Let us pray”). Don’t shift your eyes from side to side. Wear glasses if you need to. But don’t wear photo greys, which turn dark when the lights hit them.
When asked by a sound engineer to give a voice level, use this opportunity to “set the stage” for the interview. The engineer wants to know your voice’s normal speaking level so say your name, title and what you’d like to talk about. Beware of leaning toward and away from a stationary microphone while you’re talking, as this causes your voice to become louder and softer. In a radio interview, your voice is all you have, so beware of speaking in a dull monotone. Project, be expressive, and you’ll come across better. Voices sound best if they’re from the lower register, yet they often get higher when people are nervous. You can lower your voice through awareness and controlled, deep breathing. Smiling helps animate the voice. Don’t say anything off-camera that you wouldn’t say on-camera.
Wear clothes that are comfortable. Solid colors or soft shades are best. A burgundy tie or scarf will reflect color onto the face. A light blue shirt or blouse, burgundy tie or scarf and navy jacket is ideal for television. Lightweight suits are less likely to cause perspiration if you will be in the hot lights of a studio. Make sure socks that are long enough to avoid a gap between your pant leg and the top of your sock. Of course, your tie is straightened, your shirttail tucked in. Button a jacket when standing; unbutton when seated. Don’t wear high contrasts like black and white. Avoid horizontal stripes, hounds-tooth and other distracting patterns.
Don’t wear a pager or phone during an interview unless you can control the sound.
Makeup and hair
Makeup is appropriate on television for men and women. It helps control shine especially on foreheads. Before a television interview or photography session, get a haircut if you need one. Keep your hair out of your face.
Most people get butterflies in their stomachs at the idea of an interview, especially one before the camera. Be aware of how you show stress and control it. Don’t allow nervous gestures, such as pulling at your hair, swinging your foot or smiling too broadly, spoil an otherwise successful interview. Nervousness vanishes with frequency. The more interviews you give, the easier they will be.
After an interview
When will the story appear?
Reporters are reluctant to tell you when an interview will appear, usually because they don’t know. Timing is up to their editors or producers. Communications and Marketing often can find out for you, if there is a scheduled date or time, or we can obtain videos or clippings.
The story was fine, but the headline! Remember that reporters have nothing to do with headlines. Those are written by editors on the copy desk, often under great deadline and space pressures.
When a story is reported well, let the reporter know with a phone call or letter to the editor. But don’t overdo it. If you’re too complimentary, reporters may worry that their story wasn’t balanced enough.
Newspapers will run corrections, but they don’t like them. Minor inaccuracies or differences in viewpoint usually aren’t worth making a fuss. However, serious errors and misconceptions should be brought to a reporter’s attention. Communications and Marketing can assist you in dealing with these problems. Some options: Call the reporter to clear up the inaccuracy. Many reporters either will write a correction or do a follow-up piece that clarifies the information. Avoid going over the reporter’s head unless the reporter is completely unresponsive. Write a letter to the editor. Be brief and to the point. If you don’t edit tightly, the newspaper will do it for you.
You spend hours preparing for your interview, another hour in front of the camera and you are on the evening news for a grand total of six seconds. Or worse, the entire story is preempted by a plane crash. Or you may spend half a day with a newspaper reporter and be quoted only once, or not at all. Don’t be disappointed. Stories often are edited or “killed” for various reasons. However, the time you spent helped establish a good working relationship with the media that will benefit you in the long run. Chances are, the story will appear later or the reporter will be back.
- To know who is interviewing you and what newspaper, magazine, television or radio station they represent.
- To be treated courteously. The questions can be tough, but the reporter’s demeanor should not be abusive.
- To physical comfort during the filming or taping of the interview – appropriate setting, chair, make up, a glass of water.
- To not be physically threatened by hand-held lights or microphones shoved into your face.
- To make your own tape of an interview or to have someone such as a public information officer in the room during an interview. You should inform the reporter of this in advance, however, as they may choose not to conduct the interview if you insist on having a third party present.
- To ensure security of your laboratory and to protect it from damage from cameras or other equipment.
- To get some of your points across in the interview. Don’t just answer the reporter’s questions. Use your messages. Tell your story.
- To be quoted accurately.
- To protect the privacy of yourself, your students, colleagues or patients by withholding information that is not public.
- To establish ground rules, such as time and location.
- To terminate an interview if your rights are violated.