Northern States Conservation Center

Providing collection care, preservation and conservation treatment services to collectors and collecting institutions.

Collections Caretaker

Vol.2 No.2 Fall 1999 Temperature and Relative Humidity
Developing a relationship with local reporters will help the museum in future contacts

by Tim Huber

I know somebody who once told a newspaper reporter that people are stupid. That quote ended up on the front page of the local paper and, while the person who made the remark may have spoken the truth, the comment didn't impress people.

This person made a crucial mistake when dealing with the media: she forgot that everything she said was fair game. If she'd known that beforehand, she would have not made the comment.

Here are some other basics to remember when dealing with the press. Use them and you should have good experiences dealing with the local newspaper or radio or TV station.

Start a press release with a title. Then add a few lines with the contact name and phone numbers. Follow with your text. Keep the release brief, ideally two paragraphs, double-spaced. At the end, center the symbols ### on their own line. This tells the reader that it is the end. First, you need to know two things about reporters:

  1. They are not experts, so they ask lots of questions and need lots of explanations in simple terms. They also often ask you to repeat things. Don't be offended, they're just trying to get things right. Many have bad handwriting.
  2. Reporters live under the tyranny of the clock. One of life's certainties is that the morning paper will land on your porch around dawn or the evening news will hit the air at 6 p.m.
Now that you know a bit more about reporters, how do you deal with them?

Let's start with interviews. Remember that the reporter is not your audience. You are talking to the readers or viewers, the listeners to the radio show and those people are customers, neighbors, employees, co-workers.

The second thing to remember is to relax and be yourself. That's actually easier than it sounds, even if you've never done it before. You can use tricks. Try standing up during a telephone interview or making sure in-person interviews occur in a place where you're comfortable, such as your office.

While tricks are nice, the real key is preparation. When a reporter calls, you should ask questions. What's the topic? You've got to get that really clear, narrow and focused. What's the deadline? It helps everyone involved to know if the interview is needed in the next five minutes, tomorrow or next week.

Then ask: When can I get back to you? This is vital. Don't conduct an interview off the cuff. You need time, even if it's only five minutes, to prepare. This benefits both parties.

You also should set ground rules, such as the length of the interview,which allows you to prepare to speak for a set amount of time.

Do not ask to read a copy of a story before it is published. The vast majority of newspapers do not permit this and asking puts the reporter in an uncomfortable position and makes him or her leery about dealing with you.

Before calling the reporter back, ask a friend or co-worker to sit in on the interview and take notes. Ask that person to keep the interview to a pre-arranged length. When the 10 minutes you've scheduled are up, your assistant should signal you to end the interview or take one last question.

Jot some notes or a mini outline before the interview. You also may want to gather documents or make photocopies of materials that you think would help the reporter.

When the appointed time comes, call back promptly. Even if you've changed your mind or only agreed to consider an interview, call back to say no. That's fine. Reporters get turned down all the time. But if you do say no, consider suggesting someone else to call. Try to provide a phone number and perhaps encourage the reporter to use your name to get a foot in the door.

Once the interview starts, get to the point right away. If you don't, you run the risk of the reporter thinking you've emphasized something you haven't. Keep what you say clear and to the point. Use short sentences, use short words, don't use acronyms.

Repeat yourself. This is vital. Reporters often repeat important points in longer pieces to reinforce those points. Don't say the same words over and over again, but repeat key concepts in several ways at several times during the course of an interview.

Now, those are all the things you should do if a reporter calls. You also should take the time to meet reporters before they ever think to call you. Whether you're in a big city or small town, get to know the person at either the paper or the radio station or TV station who's interested in or assigned to covering areas where you might be involved. Somebody who writes about the museum community, somebody who writes about the art world in your town. If you can't find the right person, call anyway. Ask for the editor, the city editor, the arts editor and he or she will get you the right person. Once you get the right person, develop a relationship over time. Call that person up. After asking if he or she is on deadline, introduce yourself and explain what you do. Then suggest getting together for coffee or lunch. Or have them over to your office or lab. Show them around, show them a little of what you do, show some of the really fun stuff, the kind of miracle things that can happen. Specify that it's not for a story at this point. But during the conversation, bring up the subject of what makes a good story.

The key isn't to suggest some ideas, but to get a sense of what the person is interested in covering. Remember, news is unusual or uncommon and affects large numbers of people. Maybe it's something that you're working on publicly, or a prized part of the local culture. Maybe it's a project like Heritage Preservation's Save Outdoor Sculpture. Maybe it's something where you're trying to get a lot of volunteers. Once you have a good sense of what a reporter wants, you can start pitching ideas, but please don't pester. If you're really good at coming up with ideas, maybe you'll plant the seeds of two or three stories a year.

Another avenue is the press release. If you decide to try writing one, get help first. Talk to somebody, maybe somebody at another museum, who has written successful press releases. Look at press releases. Many are published on the Internet. Also, the local newspaper would undoubtedly love to get rid of a weeks worth of releases.

Many press releases are poorly written. Be clear. Use short sentences. Get someone to edit it, in addition to yourself. Check the spelling and grammar. Make sure the most interesting information is at the top. Include a contact name and phone number, somebody who'll give a lively quote.

Once the release is sent, expect reporters to call. Some small papers will publish a release as written. Otherwise, no one is going to write anything more than a brief item from a release. A reporter will want more information and color. If no one calls, follow up yourself with a phone call. Press releases often are misplaced or not delivered to the correct person.

Finally, if a reporter interviews you or does a story on your insititution and makes a mistake, call and ask for a correction. Be nice, but firm, and insist that an inaccuracy gets corrected. While a correction isn't as good as having a correct story in the first place, a surprising number of people read them. Conversely if a reporter does a good job, even on a story that has nothing to do with you, call and tell him or her you enjoyed the piece. Or write the reporter a note. That means a whole lot and can help develop a good relationship with a reporter that may pay benefits down the line. I cherish the eight notes I've received in 11 years as a reporter.

Tim Huber is a reporter with the Associated Press

P.O. Box 8081, St. Paul, MN 55108   Phone: (651) 659-9420

© 2002 Northern States Conservation Center

Updated 11 May 2002