10 things you should never say to a journalist – and what you could say or do instead.
January 28, 2021

We’ve had a bit of fun with this one!  All of our media trainers are working journalists and so when we asked them which phrases or comments really annoyed them or caused them to roll their eyeballs when they’re out in the field reporting, the answers came back thick and fast.

What not to say to a journalist or what not to do during an interview is every bit as important as what you should say and do. So, here are our top media relations no-no’s – plus some suggestions about what you should say or do instead

1. “I’m surprised that you don’t know about this already.”

Well, frankly, you shouldn’t be. Although there are some journalists who specialise in a particular area and know more about it than anyone else, these days most writers are generalists, jacks of all trades, and masters of almost none who might find themselves covering half a dozen topics a week.  We always say in our media training courses that very often journalists’ knowledge is an inch deep and a mile wide – unlike many of the people, they interview who (and we’re very grateful for this!) know more than we’ll ever forget about this subject.

So it’s important to assume that the journalist has a basic knowledge and therefore to keep things simple when you’re talking to them.

Instead: Google the journalists beforehand or better still talk to your PR company or Corporate Comms team about them to find out whether they’re a specialist or not.  Either way, you can also start by saying something such as “Just wondered what stage of your research you are at with this – have you done a lot on it, or are you relatively new to this subject?” This will help set the ground rules.

2. “Off the record…”

We had a great response when we blogged about this issue recently. One of the most interesting things was that there was little consensus on what this actually means and how a journalist might or might not use it. Some of the public relations people we work with have told us how it can be useful but also the difficult situations that they have seen it drag people into.

Instead: just assume that everything you say to the journalist can be printed and attributed to you. If your PR or Corporate Comms people know the journalist well they might feel that they can give some background briefing or speak anonymously to them otherwise, steer clear!

3. Don’t print this but…

See above. All of our media trainers/journalists have stories about how they have been chatting to people, often before or after the interview, and have been given some interesting information that would make a great story but would be embarrassing if it were attributed to the interviewee.  Very often people assume in a press interview that if the journalist doesn’t have a pen in his or her hand that they’re not working or that if they say something to a reporter at reception or on the way back to the lifts that this doesn’t count. Unfortunately, it does. Worse still, using a phrase such as “Don’t print this but…” or “I shouldn’t say this, but…” will simply wet the journalist’s appetite as they know that they’re going to get something good.

Instead: Just don’t say it! If you want to grab the interest of a journalist in a way that is more helpful to you and is more likely to generate positive coverage, use a phrase such as, “What’s really interesting here is that…” or “Something that really surprised me when I first heard it is that…” Flagging up a key message – and adding a story, of course – will help you to take control of the direction of the interview.

4. I’ve never read your magazine/seen your show.

Believe it or not, this happens quite regularly according to our media trainer/journalists.  Many of them write for national newspapers and work for the BBC, Sky, and ITV but they also contribute to specialist publications and as we point out during our media coaching sessions these might not be as glamorous as the big-name outlets but they’re highly targeted – and they’re often desperate for content.

Instead: Your public relations advisors should be able to fill you in and give you a briefing on the publication or programme, the issues it covers, its style of reporting, and any history that your organisation has with it. You can also go online to read a publication or watch or listen to a broadcast. If you’re really clever, of course, you can always say to the journalist “I really enjoyed your piece about…” or “That was a great interview with…” journalists like anyone else are partial to a little bit of flattery.

5. We put the customer at the center of everything we do.

Or any other meaningless corporate rubbish, for that matter.  Journalists more than most people have a low tolerance for this kind of stuff.  Not only are they unlikely to quote it but it’ll turn them off mentioning you at all.

Instead: tell a story or give an example to show how seriously you treat your customers.  Similarly, instead of telling us that, “People are our greatest asset,” use a case study or anecdote full of human interest to grab our attention and prove what you are saying.  Speaking to the media is about “show,” not “tell.”

6. I’ll want to check what you’ve written before it’s published.

Again a blog we did about this issue created a lot of interest – especially from Communications and PR professionals as well as journalists from abroad. In most cultures, this simply isn’t possible – and, if anything, will only irritate a journalist. There simply isn’t time to ping-pong text backward and forwards. As we say in our media coaching sessions –you’re in charge of what you say and the journalist is in charge of how they use it.

Instead: Obviously, be very clear on your messages so that it’s more likely the journalist will report what you say. You can also offer – only offer, rather than demand – to check your quotes if you’ve been discussing something quite technical or detailed. Journalists will often allow this.

7. Can you send me a list of questions?

“Oh, blimey! Must I?” might be the reply.  On the other hand, you could get: “Sorry, I just don’t have the time.”  Occasionally if you’re taking part in a profile for a publication where you are the focus of the article and, since this will almost certainly be a feature piece, there is slightly more time to arrange and do the interview.   In most cases though It’s very unlikely that you will know what the journalist wants to ask you – partly because they will respond to your answers and will let the interview take its own course.

Instead: You should be able to get the gist of the report.  We find that during our media coaching sessions once we and their PR company have discussed with the participants what makes a story and what the media are looking for they get a pretty good idea of what a journalist will want to ask. You should certainly have a good idea of the subject area before you start.

8. Has the piece gone up on the website yet?

With more and more print ending up online, sometimes exclusively so, it’s easier than ever to keep track of your coverage. But don’t ask the journalist before you’ve done a good Google search and checked to see if you can find it yourself.

Instead: Find it and then say: “Great piece!”

9. Stop filming!

Contrary to popular opinion, there is nothing that makes for better television, especially during an investigative report, than a hand going over the camera lens or an angry, intimidating security guard pushing a cameraperson out of the way or off the premises.  TV cameras or ENGs as they are often known are scary things if they are being pushed up your nose when you don’t expect it or don’t want to talk to the media. Trying to stop one from filming will just make you look shifty, hostile, and defensive.

Instead: If you invite them into your office, factory, or workshop you can only tell them where to film, not what to film.  A camera operator will assume that they can shoot anything they see.  So, for example, if you have something confidential such as sales plans or prototypes in a room then simply don’t let them into the room.  If you’re faced by a camera because you’ve been doorstepped then, as we recommend in our crisis communications courses, it’s best not to panic, but to find out from the reporter or producer what they want to know, and then negotiate a time when you can do a proper interview.

10. Can you ring back next week, I’m really busy at the moment.

Aren’t we all?! This is one of the things that annoys journalists the most, partly because we have very short deadlines and timescales.  Each one of our media trainer/journalists has to be on the receiving end of this intensely irritating request. Next week is almost certainly too late.

Instead: find somebody else within the organisation who is available now and who is qualified and sufficiently media trained to do the interview.  If there really isn’t anyone then just be honest with the journalist and say: “I’m so sorry we just can’t give you a comment at the moment but normally we’re very happy to help.”  It’s not ideal but it’s better than putting off a reporter only to announce after various failed attempts to make contact that actually you can’t speak to them after all.

The media are very often pushy, arrogant, and demanding.  But avoiding saying the wrong thing as we’ve listed above and choosing instead something more appropriate as we’ve suggested will help Corporate Communications and Public Relations professionals to handle them.

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