How to be media-friendly

<b>An unexpected call from a journalist asking about a programme of redundancies need not cause panic. Stefan Stern offers advice on establishing a good relationship with the press</b>

Ever get fed up that the same old people seem to be quoted in the business and management press? Ever wondered why this happens? There is no mystery here: journalists, not always the most imaginative or industrious of people, often return to contacts and sources that have delivered for them in the past. It is repeat business, if you like.

But for an ambitious and career-minded HR professional, getting quoted fairly regularly in respectable journals cannot do any harm. Headhunters and competitors will read these articles even if not all of your colleagues will.

So how should you react when the phone rings and a journalist is on the line? Is this a threat or an opportunity? Dont automatically presume that a journalist is the enemy, says Jo Phillips, former press officer for Paddy Ashdown, and now managing director of Know Comment, a media consultancy. The first thing is to find out why they are ringing: never just say no comment and hang up. Find out what it is they are looking for, promise to come back with an answer, and then do so, before their deadline.

Khalid Aziz, founder of the communications consultancy the Aziz Corporation, agrees: You must respect the journalists deadline try and get back to them well before it. That doesnt mean you should give an instant off-the-cuff response. You can buy time by agreeing to speak later, but not as a way of avoiding dealing with an enquiry.

If you have a press office, it should of course be handling media enquiries in the first instance, and you can refer any calls to it. But dont be afraid of putting your head above the corporate parapet. It could raise your profile and boost your confidence as a communicator. Getting some media training is vital, particularly before doing any radio or TV work.

Part of the trick when dealing with journalists is getting to understand what their agenda is. Seasoned media practitioners agree that while journalists may not always be mischievous, they cannot ever be entirely trusted either. Be very careful with terms such as off the record, says Phillips. Presume that anything you say could end up in print. If you dont want to see it in print, dont say it.

Aziz argues that a bit of planning can give you control over the situation. Find out what the questions are going to be, go away and get the necessary information, he says. You may not have complete trust in the journalist, but you can develop a decent relationship.

If you get an unexpected call, perhaps about a programme of redundancies, you will need to take extra care in how you respond. Staff should not find out about their future in the papers or on the radio. Aziz suggests a simple holding response The company will always maintain a workforce appropriate to our needs at any time which can be offered until a more thorough reply is needed. In the end there is no great secret to becoming media-friendly. Do as you would be done by, meet journalists needs when you can, and you wont be short of favourable media attention. Heres an exclusive: journalists are only doing their job. Believe it or not, they are human too.