Hollywood stars, media mavens and America’s most influential businessmen and politicians: that’s the crowd at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner. That night in 2006 newly appointed Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke mingled with CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo, who asked about his recent congressional testimony, which had sent stock markets soaring. He told her he’d been misinterpreted, she reported the comments, and the markets plummeted, prompting a hail of criticism.
Every senior leader, in politics or in business, eventually has to face the media and, no matter how short the interview is, it can have a lingering impact on both your reputation and your organization’s. Here are the three biggest mistakes executives make when dealing with journalists — and how you can avoid them.
- Not understanding their motives. As Ben Bernanke learned the hard way, you’re always “on the record” unless you specify otherwise. Journalists are always after a story, and more often than not they’re after a specific storyline. My experience working as a communications director for Howard Dean during the 2004 Democratic presidential primary campaign drove this point home. Early on, the Boston press corps loved us, because they could use Dean as a cudgel against “local favorite” John Kerry. (Reporters love to champion underdogs.) About six weeks before the New Hampshire primary, however, the coverage began to turn against us. The poll results were too good and the endorsements (such as Vice President Gore’s) were too major. Dean had become the front runner—and a target. From then on, we had to shift our strategy, becoming more proactive with the media, and more selective about the interviews we gave. My advice for any leader interacting with journalists is to tread carefully and ask lots of questions. What’s the intended focus of the piece? Who else will be interviewed? Where will it run? Which types of stories is the reporter best known for?
Read the rest of my post on the Harvard Business Review website.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You. She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, the National Park Service, and Yale University. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.