How Much Should You Tell the Media About Your Company?
Companies have understood the importance of having a healthy relationship with the media for a long time, which means doling out fewer “no comments” and instead, proactively coughing up information. But in the last several years—especially after the financial collapse—there’s been a heightened sensitivity about how transparent a company is, with both the media reporting on the company (“they’re not being transparent enough!”) and the company itself (“are we being transparent enough?”).
Like most things in PR, there’s a delicate balance between making sure your company is operating transparently and not releasing information that could negatively impact the reputation of your brand.
Figuring out where to draw that line is determined by several things, including the strength of your relationships with the journalists that cover your company, as well as how positive—or negative—the information in question is.
With that said, here’s how to navigate some of the most common (and often, trickiest) topics journalists will ask about.
If you’re a public company, you are required by law to disclose financial and operating information. If you try to dodge questions with a “no comment,” you’re going to get in a whole lot of trouble—and make your company look very non-transparent in the process.
If you’re a private company, you are not required to disclose financial and operating information. And most companies keep those numbers to themselves. However, if you’re absolutely killing it and want the press to know, create some great stats that show how awesome you’re doing without having to provide exact numbers (like year over year growth). This will protect you in case you have an awful quarter. In that case, journalists may sniff out that it’s bad, but won’t have exact numbers to compare or exploit.
When it comes to your staff, your first priority is not transparency—it’s to protect them. So if a journalist calls nosing around for information on employees’ personal lives, you should always issue a “no comment.” The only exception is if the person in question is part of an internal or external investigation that has gone public. In that case, you’ll want to tell the media that you are conducting or cooperating with the investigation and leave it at that.
If a staff member has left the company or been fired and a journalist asks about his or her status, you can say he or she is no longer with the company. But you don’t need to offer up any more details.
The Success of a Launch or Initiative
As PR people, we love the opportunity to proactively reach out to the press with positive news about our company. But what happens when journalists who covered an announcement—like the launch of a new product—follow up and want to know how the new product is selling six months later, when it isn’t actually doing particularly well?
Do you have to answer their questions? No. But would it seem very non-transparent of you not to? Yes.
My advice is to create a one- or two-sentence statement that addresses the journalist’s question without, again, going into specific numbers. In this case, you could say something along the lines of, “While the product has only been on the market for a few months, we’ve received encouraging feedback from our customers.” You’ve responded, shaped the message in your favor, and protected yourself from giving too much information—just in case the product flops.
In a Crisis
When the reputation of your company is in jeopardy, you need to be extremely careful with the information you give to the media. The best way to stay transparent while still protecting your brand is to issue regular statements to the press letting them know what’s going on—e.g., you’re looking into the problem, you’ve identified the problem, and finally, you’re fixing the problem—while keeping your messaging as contained and high-level as possible. If the media has any questions beyond those simple statements that you’re not comfortable answering, you can “no comment” them until you’re blue in the face.
While these are just a few examples of the types of questions you’ll receive from the press, the formula for toeing that transparency line stays the same: Answer questions as transparently as possible, while staying out of the weeds with your answers—whether that means excluding exact numbers or the specifics about a situation. And remember: If you’d like to share a piece of information but don’t want to be quoted, you can always ask to speak on background.
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About The Author
Alex Honeysett is a Marketing & Brand Strategist who believes the secret to marketing success is not to sell your soul, lose your sense of humor or shape-shift into a corporate marketing robot -- it's to create a human relationship with your community (strategically!). After spending nearly a decade leading corporate communications strategies for companies including Thomson Reuters and NASDAQ, Alex now helps women entrepreneurs and small businesses create foundational brand, messaging and marketing strategies that leverage all the ways they innately communicate and connect with people and bring those strategies to life. You can learn more about her work (and story!) here: alexhoneysett.com.