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Five things that a lawyer should never say to a journalist
March 9, 2021

At Communicate Media we use working journalists, operating under strict NDAs.  The fact that our trainers are out there working in the fast changing world of the media means that they can bring their direct, current experience to bear when we do our media training.  It keeps their recommendations and advice up to date but also means that, like other journalists, they hear some comments from interviewees that they don’t recommend or advise.  Here are five things that no lawyer or law firm spokesperson should say to a journalist.

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

Although there are some specialists with extensive background knowledge, these days most writers are generalists, jacks of all trades who might find themselves covering half a dozen different topics a week.  We always say in our media training courses for law firms that, unlike lawyers, very often journalists’ knowledge is an inch deep and a mile wide.

Instead: We’re just grateful for experts who can bring us up to speed on an issue quickly and concisely.  You (or your comms team) could check with us how much we know and what stage of our research we’re at. You can then judge how much information to provide us with.  Tell us something that’s new and is relevant and useful to our audience and we’re all ears.

2.“Off the record…”

One of the most interesting aspects of this phrase is that there’s little consensus among the media on what it actually means and how a journalist might or might not use any information that you give them off the record.  Some of the public relations people in the law firms that 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, then they might feel that they can give some background briefing or speak anonymously to them otherwise, steer clear!

3.“I think you need to know the full picture of the case and statute law here.”

I’d love to but I really haven’t got the time or the space in my report.  Just as you wouldn’t go into every aspect of the law with a client who simply wants to know what they should do or not do in a particular situation, please don’t go into great detail or expansive discussions about the law.

Instead: Just give us the upshot and, most importantly, the effect on our audience.  What do they need to do or not do?  This also works for you since you only want to share enough information to demonstrate to my readers, listeners or viewers that you know your stuff and that you have daily practical experience of this issue.

4.“Yes.”

Or “no” for that matter.  In other words, don’t give one-word answers.  Often with lawyers’ training the emphasis is on keeping answers to questions as short and closed as possible.  This might work well when you’re talking to a judge or a regulator but it’s not appropriate for a journalist.

Instead: Take the initiative with media interviews.  Once you’ve decided on your key messages and identified examples to back them up, introduce them into the conversation without waiting to be asked about them.  As we say in our media training courses for lawyers it’s actually often safer when talking to a journalist to take the initiative and lead the conversation.  Once you’re giving us useful information it’s less likely that we’ll jump in with difficult or risky questions.

5.“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 countries and cultures, “copy approval” as it’s sometimes called, simply isn’t possible – and, if anything, will only irritate a journalist.  Changes made by an interviewee might be appropriate for the report.  There simply isn’t time to ping-pong text backward and forwards between journalist and interviewee in the hope that eventually both will be happy. 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 them. You can also offer – only offer, rather than demand – to check your quotes if you’ve been discussing something quite technical or detailed. You could explain that, like the journalist, you just want to ensure accuracy.   A request rather than a demand usually works much better.

Speaking to a journalist is always a risk.  However, avoiding these pitfalls will mitigate that risk and improve the chances of the final report being something that benefits you, raises your profile in a positive way, and brings in more business.

Chat to Communicate Media

Our media training courses are realistic, bespoke to your needs, quick to turn around, and cost-effective.

Give us a call on 0800 1777080 or email us: gareth@communicatemedia.com

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