If you want a big-time, hotshot career, you have to know how to talk to the press. You might think, “Who cares? No one ever calls me.” But one day, in your climb to the top, the press will call. Maybe your name will be in a press release. Maybe your company's PR director will field a question only you can answer. And if you are useless on the phone the first time, you will not get a second try.
That's because a reporter just wants to get her story written and she is calling on you to help. If you do not give good quotes, if you do not give intelligent, on-topic input, the reporter will decide you are a waste of time and she will avoid you. If you are very helpful, she will call you again for related topics. If you're really good, other reporters will see your name in print, and they will call, too.
Now that I'm the press, I realize all the stupid things I did when I was the public, trying to get my company in the news. Here are things I wish I had known:
Talk in sound bites. The LA Times is not going to run a four-paragraph quotation from you. The newspaper will run one or two sentences if you're lucky. So say something short and snappy – intelligent and informative with a hint of cleverness is most likely to get you quoted. Funny is good. Then a reporter with a dry, boring topic, can sound witty just by quoting you.
Be fast. If you get a message from a reporter, call back immediately. She probably needs to get the story written that day. But even if she's not on a tight deadline, she has called many people who might get to her before you and make you redundant. Also, if she knows you call back quickly, she's likely to call again, when she's in a pinch.
Spell your name and reiterate your title. You will be misquoted, and you will have little recourse because frankly, that's how the press works. But you can control whether your name looks right in print. And make sure your company name is spelled correctly, too, so that your boss doesn't think you care more about your career than your company.
Be newsworthy. You want the press to be your PR machine, but the press wants you to have a story. So if you want to plug something while you're on the phone, make it sound like news. Every time I talk to my dad's friend Sarah, she has another idea about how I could write about her in my column. She has told me about her company, her ads, and her products. But when it comes to Sarah, the only thing that's newsworthy is how annoying she is.
In contrast to Sarah, I worked for a guy who built his career on talking to the press. I didn't know this about him until we were at the airport, ready to get on the plane, and someone from the Wall Street Journal called him with questions about our government sales. He talked to her while everyone else boarded. He talked to her while we heard the last calls for standby passengers. After the plane took off, he told me, in his impeccable sound-bite form, “It's cheaper to buy a new plane ticket than to buy space for yourself in the Wall Street Journal.”