Advice for Working with News Media

There's really no way to prepare for every crisis or emergency, however there are some basic media relations principles to follow that may, at the very least, minimize damage. Click here for more information.


  1. Don't go off half-cocked. Everything you say to a reporter can be quoted, so don't start speaking until you know what you're really talking about and what you want to say. Make sure you know your agenda before you open your mouth.
  2. Be honest. You don't have to tell everything you know, however whatever you do say must be the truth.
  3. Show compassion. If deaths or injuries are involved, express your sorrow. Show sensitivity. You certainly don't want to admit liability; however, you do want to demonstrate humanity.
  4. Don't be defensive. Defensiveness implies guilt. Avoid it.
  5. Be aware of body language. Your face and your body telegraph your emotions. Be relaxed, but lean a bit forward. Maintain direct eye contact with the reporter and keep the expression on your face pleasant no matter how provocative the questions are. Remember that in most stories, the reporter's questions are never used.
  6. Keep your cool. If you lose your temper, you will see it on the news. Reporters are neither your best friend nor your worst enemy; they're just trying to get information and beat the competition.
  7. Don't be afraid of silence. If you need to pause and gather your thoughts, say so and go right ahead. A brief silence is better than a damaging quote.
  8. Be human. People don't believe or trust corporations, however they do have empathy for individual human beings.
  9. Show people you care. First impressions count, and they're almost impossible to change, so make sure you show that you care and are taking whatever positive action is possible.
  10. Think like the public and your customers. If you just paid top dollar for the fanciest computer chip and then heard it made mistakes and the company wouldn't replace it, how would you feel? The impression you give the public is more important than being right.
  11. Stick to your values. What does your company believe in and stand for? Make sure those principles are known and followed by all employees. Let them guide you through tough times. Johnson & Johnson, widely praised for its handling of the Tylenol crisis, has a company credo that begins, "We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services."
That kind of credo will lay the foundation for all communication in a crisis. You must do the right thing before you can talk about it. If you want positive publicity, make sure your actions warrant it. And, once you take action, show reporters what you're doing. Remember the power of an image. While viewers watched birds and otters die in a river of thick, black oil, the Exxon Company was silent. Don't make the same mistake.

- from the Public Relations Society of America

Who are the media?

The media include local and national magazines, newspapers, radio and television networks, wire services, and even computer networks. Each medium has a different angle on the news, different deadlines and different contacts.

Just in terms of contact, you can deal with various people-including reporters, anchors, producers, editors, assignment editors, managing editors and planning directors.

Pay attention to the differences in media. Print and television reporters have different needs; a print journalist might want a good map of the a facility to illustrate a story, while a television reporter might want to videotape pictures of the plant.

If you haven't already done so, contact print or broadcast newsrooms in your community to find out which journalists to deal with on daily stories, press conferences and emergencies. Keep those names and telephone and fax numbers with your media plan.

Be aware that all journalists work with uncompromising deadlines. If you're working with a reporter, find out when he or she needs the information to meet a deadline.

Also, journalists have a rule you need to understand. It is called talking "off the record." Unless you tell the reporter in advance that your conversation is "off the record," and get his or her agreement, anything and everything you disclose may be used. Your should avoid speaking off the record.

What do the media want?

Whether journalists work for television, radio or print, they want the same questions answered: Who, What, When, Where and Why. Be prepared for those questions by doing the following: The most important guideline in dealing with the media is to be honest and accurate. You gain nothing and your utility could lose credibility if information is wrong.

How should I work with the media?

Your media interaction should be well-planned and organized. The only way to achieve that goal is to have a comprehensive media plan, written with the help from the Public Affairs Department (if your utility has one), or with help from outside public relations consultants.

Such a plan includes your utility's goals, its desired position in the community, and its crisis communication plan. Of course, energy utilities should have a crisis plan outlining internal actions and media interaction.

The plan also should include the name of a designated media spokesperson. In smaller utilities, that person might be the Utility Manager; in larger facilities the spokesperson might be the Public Affairs or Public Relations Director.

It is important to have one spokesperson to ensure information is accurate and consistent. The spokesperson should be poised, have good language and people skills, and be well-informed about water issues. Everyone at the utility must know who the spokesperson is. All information should be funneled through him or her.

Press releases

Press releases are an effective, efficient way of communicating, if used properly. Before writing a press release, decide whether it is being used to announce news or to request coverage of an event.

Informational releases are used when the facts speak for themselves, such as the announcement of a new utility manager or the issuing of new rules on summer watering restrictions. It is written inverted pyramid narrative style, which means the most important facts are in the first paragraph.

A request-for-coverage-release should answer the basic questions: Who, what, when, where, why. This type of press release also will have a short narrative section explaining why the media will want to cover the event, what angles they might consider covering, and what video opportunities are available.

Both types of releases are short, informative and answer the basic questions. They can be mailed or faxed to newsrooms or other media departments.

A longer form of release is called a media kit. Such releases are packets of information, possibly including pictures and diagrams. They can be used to give reporters background information or to augment a press conference.

Personal interviews

Before agreeing to an interview, find out what subject the reporter wants to cover. Allow time to prepare and do research if necessary. Then, use the following guidelines:
  1. Know the facts and be accurate.
  2. Practice what you're going to say and why.
  3. Practice to avoid mistakes.
  4. Explain complex issues using everyday language.
  5. Dress appropriately.
  6. Be aware of body language.
  7. Maintain good eye contact.

Crisis management

If you have a media plan, an emergency won't be the first time you deal with reporters, but it will be the most important. During a crisis, it is absolutely necessary to communicate with journalists, and to do so only through your designated spokesperson.

Types of crisis include natural disasters, explosions, burst pipes, accidents, boil water orders, and waterborne disease outbreaks.

Reporters want the basic questions answered during a crisis: Who, what, when, where, why. Because this information can become sensitive, be careful not to speculate, sensationalize or minimize. Also, do not guess at answers. Further, if anyone is injured, only the hospital or police should release their names -- not the utility.

Express empathy for those affected by the situation.

Additional crisis recommendations:
  1. Be the first source for information.
  2. Provide facts before reporters find the information elsewhere.
  3. Assign a spokesperson round the clock and release home and work phone numbers.
  4. Help reporters set up interviews with workers or those affected by a crisis.
  5. Provide regularly scheduled information updates with press releases or press conferences.
  6. Post an information board with pertinent facts and backgroundinformation.
  7. Have experts available to answer complex questions.
Above all, follow two important rules when giving information to journalists:
  1. Be honest and accurate.
  2. Be first.
Remember, journalists need you as much as you need them. Don't be afraid to cultivate the relationship. Use these recommendations to enhance that link, and it will pay off for you and your utility.

Catalog #65086. American Water Works Association