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Tips in Dealing with the Media- Part 2: First Interactions

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Intro (Part 1) | Part 2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 (Last)

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*Note: This series is almost entirely based on a series of short videos (part of Wharton’s Communication class) by Amy Sharp, a media professional.*

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Let’s start with what to do if a reporter calls you out of the blue for a story. Should you start blurting out everything that you can think of? Should you “give it to him” because he was going to write against you? The answer is an emphatic “NO” to both.

If a reporter does calls you, your goal is to make a brief conversation and get off the phone as quickly as possible. You can be assured that the reporter has done his homework, and has done his research on you and the topic (always assume so, even if it turns out differently). You, on the other hand, were caught off-guard by that unanticipated phone call. The last thing you want to do is to shoot off the hip. Unfortunately, shooting off the hip is a Muslim uncle specialty, if you get my drift.

There are some questions that you need to ask in this brief first conversation. You need to ask these questions in order to level the playing field. The reporter has first-mover advantage; he knows why he is calling you and who you are. You on the other hand don’t. So, commit these questions to memory or keep them handy (the way you ask the question is completely up to you; always remain polite and calm and ask the questions in a methodical, composed manner):

  • Which organization are you directly working for (if they haven’t already identified themselves clearly)?
  • What is your angle?
  • Who else are you speaking to?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • How much do you already know?
  • What are your expectations about talking to me?

And the most important question: What is your deadline? You absolutely need to keep up with the reporter’s deadline. If you ignore or miss the deadline, then either (a) the reporter will ignore your opinions or completely exclude you from his piece, or (b) report what he believes about you or whatever he has heard from others about you that you may agree or disagree with. Keeping deadline starts you off on a good foot and may build trust, such that the reporter may contact you again for future stories. If you are going to miss a deadline, you need to let the reporter know: ask for an extension or do whatever it takes to meet the deadline.

Other important tips:

  • Fax or email the reporter whatever you can; information that depicts or strengthens the story that YOU want to give. Any written material that you provide to the reporter, to help him write the story, can only help in guiding him to the story on your terms and based on the data that you have given (if it involves data).
  • Anticipate tough questions – write down 10 questions that you think are tough or those that you don’t want to be asked. You can bet the questions that you don’t want to be asked are exactly the ones that are going to be asked
  • Validate “no comment”. “No comment” is usually the worst thing that you can say to a reporter. It comes off as if you have something to hide. Instead, you should say something like this, “I cannot comment at this time because I have not seen that report”, or “I cannot comment at this time because I am not properly aware of the issue”
  • Remember you are NEVER off the record! Don’t let a few sweet words fool you into saying something “off-the-record”. Remember the reporter hasn’t come to you for friendship! He has come to you for a story, and sometimes off-the-record comments make for a great story (even if not great for you).

Next Topics:

  • Crafting the Right Message
  • Taking Control
  • Appearing Confident

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Abu Reem is one of the founders of MuslimMatters, Inc. His identity is shaped by his religion (Islam), place of birth (Pakistan), and nationality (American). By education, he is a ChemE, topped off with an MBA from Wharton. He has been involved with Texas Dawah, Clear Lake Islamic Center and MSA. His interests include politics, cricket, and media interactions. Career-wise, Abu Reem is in management in the oil & gas industry (but one who still appreciates the "green revolution").

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Amad

    February 22, 2008 at 12:44 PM

    Can anyone find an example on youtube of an unprepared phone or live interview?

  2. Naseer08

    February 22, 2008 at 1:04 PM

    Amad,

    May I ask who wrote this article, I mean does the person have knowledge in public relations?

    Some subjects I think it’s really inportant to consider a persons qualifications to speak on a subject. (especially if following the advice!)

    If you did happened to write this did you take the information from a website and paraprase it or something like that?

    Similar to hows it’s important to consider a persons knowledge of Shariah when they’re writing about advanced Islamic topics.

  3. Amad

    February 22, 2008 at 1:11 PM

    Naseer, good points. That is an important principle for any knowledge as you mentioned.
    Pls refer to the first part for attribution. I am not a media professional but my info is indeed coming from one.

  4. Naseer08

    February 22, 2008 at 5:07 PM

    Jazakum Allah ghair,

    Do you have links for the womans video’s?

    And can you correct/edit my post for me I made a mistake and posted the last sentence twice.

  5. Shirien

    February 22, 2008 at 5:21 PM

    Jazaki Allahu khairun,

    There are some points that you made that are good, mashaAllah and some that I’d like to comment on inshaAllah.

    I’m about to graduate with a degree in Public Relations, I’m also a columnist for The Daily Reveille (lsu’s newspaper) and I write about Islam.

    More than likely a reporter wont call you up and conduct an interview unless that is a last resort. Whether it’s in person or on the phone, people should realize that you should talk in sound bites (which is the hardest for people to realize)

    Sound bites means anything you say should be in a coherent sentence that even if taken out of context will still be representative of what you say.

    a LOT of people are always like “they misquoted me” when actually its not that they misquote you, it’s that you dont actually realize that that’s the way you said it even if you meant it in another way.

    It’s great that you mentioned the “no comment” rule, because even in PR, you should NEVER say no comment.. always say you either 1. dont have enough information at the time 2. you’ll get back to them (and actually do get back to them)

    if someone comes up to you wanting you to talk about jihaad and you are not comfortable speaking about it, dont say i’d rather not talk about that.. just say something true but short and switch subjects. say It’s a topic that is highly misunderstood by the public and in order for people to be open minded and know what it is.. they have to know the fundamentals of Islam first.. then talk about Tawheed

    A lot of times asking a reporter about their angle isn’t necessarily going to work. A good reporter will go into a subject not knowing exactly what their angle is… just trying to get all the information and then after they do the interview they take an angle.

    the most important thing is to try to maintain good relations with the reporter.. even if you think that their intentions in doing the story are not good. why? because if you are nice to them and don’t treat them like they are someone who has an agenda then the story will turn out much better in your favor. and then you can bet that you can email them later on when your MSA or masjid has an event and they’ll be more than willing to cover it…

    And that goes really well with your point about deadlines… always try to help them make their deadlines.. Jazaki Allahu Khairun for making this post. keep up the good work.

    wassalam,
    Shirien

  6. Amad

    February 22, 2008 at 6:25 PM

    Naseer, this is not based on publicly available information (I mean the videos), but from my Communications class at Wharton. I should also mention that Sr. Ruth (our Staff writer) also reviewed the information, and she has a Masters degree in journalism. So, I would count that as a qualified reviewer!

    Sr. Shirien, jazakillahkhair for sharing the information. I look forward to seeing more of your comments and thoughts as this series progresses. Oh, we will get to sound-bytes in the next post I believe…

    w/s

  7. ruth nasrullah

    February 22, 2008 at 7:26 PM

    Asalaamu alaikum, Shirien. You make several good points and I agree with most of them but I have to disagree with just a couple.

    (First, I’m not sure why you say a reporter wouldn’t call a Muslim unless it’s a last resort.)

    Bringing the conversation around to tawheed is a good way to do straightforward dawah, but in a press interview it sounds like you’re evading the issue and/or providing something so far off topic the reporter can’t use it.

    Finally, it’s not true that a reporter doesn’t necessarily have an angle when they’re reporting a story. Straight news, such as covering a press conference, may not have an “angle” per se, but there has to be some structure to the reporting or else it’s just like reprinting a press release. A news reporter on deadline just doesn’t have time to fish around for ideas. And feature writing simply can’t be done without some kind of focus.

  8. Yasir Qadhi

    February 22, 2008 at 9:58 PM

    Salaam Alaikum

    Great post, hope to read the entire series (unlike some writers who start series but then take ages to finish…lol!)

    My own (limited) experience has also proven some of these points. For one article, I spoke with a reporter for over 45 minutes, explaining what *I* wanted to convey, but she clearly had an agenda and took one soundbite that had absolutely nothing to do with my 45 minute explanation and used it in her article. Although I was not misquoted, it was not what I wanted to say about that topic (rather it was what SHE wanted me to say), and I learned my lesson from that (insha Allah).

    Also, always politely ask to see the article before it goes to print. Although they don’t have to do that, some of them actually do go over the gist of it and make sure you’re comfortable with the article. My interview in the Houston Chronicle worked out very well because of that.

    Before any interview is done, you generally have the right to ask that the quotes that have been selected be re-quoted back to you so that you’re comfortable with that. Make a condition that you’ll give the interview only if you approve the quotes at the end. That will really diminish the chances of you being misquoted.

    I know this has been said before, but always pause and THINK before you speak. Imagine that every sentence of yours will be taken individually and put on national TV, cut from the sentence before it and after it. Then speak, in short, simple and to-the-point sentences.

    Never become emotional in an interview. Unless you’re a woman running for president (sorry, had to say that!!), generally speaking it won’t be in your favor. Even worse will be to display anger. If a question is downright rude and intended to provoke, say firmly, “Frankly, I find that question offensive…” and explain why, e.g., “…because it stereotypes all Muslims as being inherently prone to violence.”

    Waiting for more tidbits…

    Yasir

  9. Amad

    February 22, 2008 at 10:13 PM

    Shaykh sahib, good to hear from someone who has HAD the experience already.

    And to avoid the never-completed series dilemma, the series was fully completed the first time, and broken into pieces for bite-size posts.

    I hope you can chime in as something in the post hits you to relate to personal experience.

    w/s

  10. Shirien

    February 23, 2008 at 12:30 AM

    Wa alaikum assalam sister ruth,

    Oh by no means was I saying a reporter won’t call you.. they definately will call you :) However, interviews that are done on the phone are usually last resort. When a reporter calls you usually they want to meet you to do an interview in person.

    Secondly with regard to bringing back to tawheed and steering the conversation… wallahi with my own experience and even as a reporter myself if someone gears the conversation a certain way and they give nothing else than those main points they are FORCED to change their angle of the article. Why? because they now don’t have the information written in their notes on what they wanted to write about.

    Yes a lot of journalist will have angles and it’s ok to ask them all the question and ask which angle they want like the sister said. however, if you are a reporter yourself or are studying to be a reporter… my advice and the advice of professionals would be to go into something with a clean mind ask whatever questions you want and see where that interview will lead you in terms of angle.

    oh and another tip.. prepare to get hate mail :P

    I get tons of it… and tons of comments on the newspapers site.. i got stalked too..

    so prepare …

  11. ruth nasrullah

    February 23, 2008 at 9:47 AM

    Walaikum asalaam, Sh. Yasir. From a journalist’s perspective it’s a tricky thing if a source asks to read what you’ve written. You run the risk of having the interviewee try to control the article or play editor. I always say no, although I did agree to it once because the source made it a condition and I really needed the interview, but I only did it with my editor’s approval.

    That said, from the other side of the interview it can’t hurt to ask, and as you pointed out that worked out well for you, which no doubt led to at least one accurate piece of information about Islam!

  12. Ruth Nasrullah

    February 23, 2008 at 11:35 AM

    Shirien, I agree that discussing tawheed is an essential part of dialogue with non-Muslims, but while it’s valuable to discuss it with reporters, you simply can’t steer the article to the focus you want them to have. I’ll give an example:

    Local newspaper reporter has been assigned by her editor to do a story on local reaction to the “teddy bear incident.” She contacts local imam for viewpoint.

    Reporter: Local Imam So and So, can you shed some light on the “teddy bear incident” in Sudan? Does that reflect Islamic shariah?

    Local Imam: Well, the thing about shariah is that like all Islamic concepts, it’s based on the idea of the unity of God.

    Reporter: Yes, that’s interesting. But does Islamic law prohibit naming a teddy bear after a prophet?

    Local Imam: Well, as I said, oneness of God, known as tawheed, is what Islam is really about, and you have to understand that before you understanding anything about shariah.

    Reporter [who is on deadline and can’t keep trying to get a direct answer out of imam]: OK, thanks. Bye. [Reporter crosses that imam off her list of sources.]

    In this example it’s also clear that the interviewee cannot force the reporter to change her angle – it was assigned to her by her editor. That’s what having an angle means – a specific focus – and that’s why Br. Amad gives excellent advice in saying to ask the reporter directly what they’re writing about. Hopefully my example also makes it clear that a journalist will rarely interview someone with no particular focus or goal. They may check in with sources once in a while to say “Hey, what’s happening in the Muslim community these days?” (and that is a very valuable source to be, BTW). But you really can’t write a decent news article or feature story without an editorial focus. And as Br. Amad and Sh. Yasir both point out, that focus can be for ill or good, but it’s in the best interest of the interviewee to ascertain that focus before answering any questions.

  13. Shirien

    February 23, 2008 at 12:35 PM

    By all means I understand that, of course say what you will about the subject (as much as you feel comfortable.)

    However, many Muslims are in a position in which they have to speak to reporters when they themselves 1. don’t have enough knowledge on the subject 2. they want them to say something that could potentially cause them trouble later.

    Of course it’s absurd that if they ask you something you completely answer in a different manner. but for instance, if someone asks you about jihad this or political stuff that.. then its always good just to give them something general and either stop there or use that simple discussion to talk about a bigger issue by saying, “in order to understand jihaad you have to understand….”

    The brother’s points are on point. But the interviewee has to think “Is there any benefit in this? Will this potentially help change people’s mind and maybe inshaAllah help someone be guided to Islam?”

    if the answer is no, then It’s best to leave your answers simple and either move on or gear it to a bigger picture.

    I get many people who send me emails asking about suicide bombings, jihad, the concept of divorce, etc. they want me to write columns about it… but most of these people are asking not because they really want to know but because they have bad intentions.

    I try as much as I can to bring the topic back to tawheed and dispelling misconceptions in my columns no matter what I write about.. last week I wrote about “free speech” and managed to twist it to bring it back to the concept of tawheed(i have to or else my editor will tell me i cant write about the subject because it’s preachy- and it doesn’t have to be tawheed it could be anything that you think will bring benefit)…

    and with this strategy alhamdulillah by the will and guidance of Allah alone, many people have told me that they’ve changed their minds about Muslims.. then when i get to speak to them after that, i can explain these concepts that they’ve always wondered about… wallahu alem.

  14. Ruth Nasrullah

    February 23, 2008 at 12:56 PM

    Shirien, I read some of your columns and you’re doing a great job and are an excellent writer – in fact, I encourage MM readers to check our your columns, which are linked to in your name a couple comments above. However, there is a big difference between an opinion column in a college paper and professional news reporting.

    As you say, speaking to the media is a great opportunity for Muslims to share the message of Islam, but it has to be done with savvy or it could completely backfire. This is what Br. Amad is demonstrating with this series.

  15. Umm 'Uthmaan

    February 23, 2008 at 6:08 PM

    Excellent article barak allaahu feek. I’ve been approached twice by reporters and it is always wise not to be rushed or pressurised into a live interview. I did in fact once make istikharah regarding an interview which a news agency had asked us for. In the end they cancelled and I took that to be the answer to the istikharah.

    Reporters are mostly out to “dish the dirt” and often employ honeyed words in order to lull the interviewee into a false sense of friendship and then *wham!* you are asked a controversial question. Take a deep breath before answering and remember that the primary aim is to make sure that Islaam doesn’t come off looking bad by your contribution, and yourself second. Of course it is nice if you can ensure that neither Islaam nor yourself comes off looking bad ;)

  16. Shirien

    February 24, 2008 at 3:02 PM

    Jazaki Allahu khairun Sr. Ruth, honestly columns are just something I do on the side. I’m actually doing PR, so I have to create media kits, press releases and everything for professional papers and media outlets.

    May Allah accept these deed purely for His sake, ameen. Barak Allahu feekom.

  17. Ammar

    February 25, 2008 at 2:24 PM

    Shirien and Ruth
    since you guys are in the field, could you please critique this interview?
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=q-Wv0A5AMNg

    thank you

  18. ruth nasrullah

    February 25, 2008 at 2:43 PM

    Ammar, do you mean how well the brother did in the interview or the quality of the package itself?

  19. Ammar

    February 25, 2008 at 3:03 PM

    Ruth, How well the brother did.

  20. Shirien

    February 25, 2008 at 6:31 PM

    So you’re basically asking how you did in the interview?

    I don’t see anything wrong with what you said.

  21. Pingback: muslimmatters.org » Tips in Dealing with the Media- Part 3: Crafting the Right Message

  22. Pingback: muslimmatters.org » Tips in Dealing with the Media- Part 4: Taking Control

  23. Pingback: muslimmatters.org » Tips in Dealing with the Media- Part 5: Appearing Confident & Final Tips

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