How to Talk to a Reporter

There are two types of calls you may get from a newspaper reporter. The first involves a case that you are actively working on. Depending on the case, you may be precluded from talking to the reporter by a gag order. If there is no gag order, you’ll need to decide if there is a strategic purpose in talking to the reporter or not. More often than not though, a reporter will call you as a legal expert on a topic.

This second scenario is far more common, and one you should be prepared for. Being featured in a publication can further establish your expertise. Other than giving a CLE (or winning an important case), talking to reporters is one of the easiest ways to increase your market visibility.

Should You Talk to a Reporter?

In almost every case, yes.

Many firms and law schools actively court media, offering lists of topics that various members of their firm or faculty will talk to reporters about. They understand the value of public perception. Some vain lawyers even list their media appearances on their bio page. This information is also valuable for attorneys who may provide referrals, opposing counsel, or even a judge.

If you develop ongoing relationships with reporters, you may be able to give them ideas for articles. That said, if you are calling about a story idea, make sure it is timely. Reporters do not want to hear about a potential story that happened last week. Some lawyers will also cold-call reporters with story ideas. If you plan to go this route, make sure it is an actual idea for a story, not merely a request to profile the work you or your firm does.

What to Consider When Talking to a Reporter

Much like lawyers, reporters work on tight deadlines. That often means they need a reliable source that can get back to them promptly and knows their practice area very well.

Consider a Reporter’s Deadline

You should try to take a reporter’s call immediately. If this isn’t feasible, you should call them back as soon as possible. Reporters have limited time, and if they can not get a response from you, they will continue to call other lawyers until they find one that makes time.

If possible, call a reporter back within an hour. If you can not talk that soon, try to set up a phone appointment for a time later in the day. Calling them back at least maintains the possibility that they will wait for you. If you promise them a statistic or a quote by a particular time, you need to deliver. Reporters succeed or fail based on good writing and meeting deadlines. Do not be the reason a reporter misses a deadline.

If a reporter has a deadline that is rapidly approaching, there is a greater chance they are looking for a quote to put in their story right away. If they are working on a story down the road, it is more likely they are doing background research to help frame their story.

Tell a Reporter Immediately If You Are Not an Expert

Do not try to fake your way through a topic if you are not an expert. Whenever possible, refer the reporter to someone else who is an expert in the field before you call the reporter back. It is a good idea to confirm with the referral attorney that they are okay with talking to a reporter about the topic. By being accommodating and helpful, a reporter will likely call you when they need your area of expertise for a future story.

On or Off the Record

  • On the Record means your name and words will be directly cited.
  • Not for Attribution means you are only offering background information. You can be quoted, but only anonymously.
  • Off the record means both you and your words won’t be quoted directly. Your comments can just be used for background information (although if they can get later corroboration, you may see your words show up later). The easiest rule to follow is that if you do not want something said in print, do not tell it to the reporter.

Everything is “on the record” unless there is an agreement at the beginning of the conversation. If you wish to remain anonymous for a story, tell the reporter before you discuss any aspect of the story. The reporter may be reluctant to do anything off the record, but if that’s the only way you’re comfortable speaking to them, insist on going “off the record.” Claiming that something is “off the record” after discussing it will mean little to the reporter you are talking to. At best, they will feel like you wasted their time, and at worst, they will disregard your request.

You Are the Expert

Occasionally, a reporter may call and be extremely well-versed in your field. Either they have prior experience or they have exhaustively researched a topic. But more often, a reporter is assigned to a story on a topic they know something about but need someone with authority to round out his or her knowledge.

One of your primary roles is to help the reporter understand what a complicated legal issue is. Instead of spouting cases or statutes (which almost never appear in the paper), try to translate complex legal concepts into mentally digestible pieces of information that everyone can understand. Refrain from legal jargon that anyone who is not an attorney would know. Plain-spoken quotes are the ones that usually end up in the newspaper.

You also do not want to insult the reporters intelligence or sound condescending; you should aim to educate the reporter you are talking to. They are not the expert, so you should not be a jerk. Conversely, if the reporter asks a good question, feel free to compliment them and tell them why it is a good question.

In your role as an expert, do not pass the reporter on to someone else. A paralegal or a legal secretary might know just as much about a case as you do, but the reporter will want your name associated with the story.

Think First then Talk

This really can not be overstated: Think before you talk. Whatever you say becomes fair game for a reporter. If you try to backtrack or indicate that you did not mean what you said, the interview will be over quickly and the reporter will look for someone who does mean what they say. Try to make your points directly and quickly. You will rarely see a two-paragraph quote from a lawyer in a newspaper. Quotes are usually one sentence or less.

Many reporters still take notes, either with a pen and paper or on a computer to get your quotes verbatim. Sometimes, a reporter will ask you to repeat what you just said. Spell your name fully and slowly at some point during the interview so they get it right in print.

Do Not Guess About Rules in Other Jurisdictions.

Many topics are completely state, county, or city ordinance specific. If your area of expertise is limited to criminal law in Delaware, do not guess what the California penal code covers. If pressed for an answer, the best you should offer is, “This is the rule in Delaware,” with an explanation. You can try to distinguish between the two versions, but don’t offer an uninformed guess.

Tell the Reporter What They Are Missing

This depends slightly on the reporter’s deadline, but if you think they are missing a key part of the story, you should tell them. They might re-route the theme or goal of the piece based on your advice, or it may at least inform how they write the story they do have in mind. It could also lead to a follow-up story in the future.

Talking to reporters can have a lot of benefits for you and your firm. Do not miss an opportunity to provide expertise on a topic and help publicize your work at the same time. Get back to the reporter right away if they leave a message and remember to think before you speak.

Featured image: “Two women talking” from Shutterstock.

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