This question came from a citizen journalist who’d rather remain anonymous:
Under what circumstances is it legitimate for a public figure to decline interviews?Â And if they decline can they insist that their denial remainÂ off the record?
I’m going to answer that question directly and then address some thoughts to what I thinkÂ may beÂ the larger problem from whence that question springs: how do small publishersÂ cultivate sources andÂ command respect?
Unlike prosecutors, journalistsÂ lackÂ subpoena powers. No rule or lawÂ requiresÂ that public, much lessÂ private, officials return calls or answer questions.
As for demanding that the denial be off the record, that sounds rather silly on the part of the official. Maybe they areÂ as inexperienced at dealing with mediaÂ as media newcomers are at dealing with the egos and idiocyncracies of the people whom they must try to cajole into conversations.
But to put a hopeful construction on what seems a petty demand to keep this denial off the record, I’d guess that the reluctant source does not want to appearÂ non-responsive. And that’s a good thing for the writer. Because whileÂ public and private officialsÂ are free to ignore media queries, they do so at some peril to their reputations and perceptions. And so long as what you eventually publish about them, orÂ aboutissues of interest to them, is accurate, truthfulÂ and without (obvious) malice, they will be forced to deal with you.
It’s like one veteranÂ reporter told me back when I was getting started in newspapers: if you want ’em to return your calls,Â write about ’em!
But you don’t want angry callbacks. You want information and comment, in advance, to enhance the authority of your stories and your publication. And if the “publication” is new and exists entirely online, it may be much easier for reluctant officials to ignore — and more frustrating for newcomers trying to build clout.
How do you get people to talk to you? By understanding why some people willinglyÂ talk to media, and learning a few tricks about how to entice – or detour around –Â those who are reluctant to return your calls.
Before I re-invent the wheel when it comes to managing sourcing, let me fpoint to a Wikipedia entry that gives some good pointers and definitions about what it meant by off the record, how does it differ from background, etcetera.
In particular I direct your attention to a concise, comprehensive and common-sense guide called “Developing and cultivating sources.”Â Written byÂ veteran newsman Steve Buttry, the guide offers more than 20 tips that will take a newcomerÂ all the way from practical considerations (like making it easy to get back to you) toÂ ethical concerns (like not getting too cosy withÂ your frequent sources) to the hard-edged (like learning how to uncover publicly availableÂ documents so when they decline to talk, you still have the ability to shove accurateÂ information right up their ahem).
Since Steve has laid out a sensibleÂ framework for source management, let me add a few jaundicedÂ observations that, I hope,Â will be helpful and notÂ seem overly cynical.
First, people talk to us because we are useful to them. The powerless obviously need our help. The powerful may want exposure; in the case of public officials they may need it. Many private individuals also want recognition (i.e. favorable stories). So when someone offers to talk, in the back of your head you have to wonder why. That should force you to look for countervaling views; look for someone with a balancing, competing or conflicting interest.
Second, there are very few people who are good at taking criticisms or hard hits. Public officials sometimes develop the knack. Public relations people should understand that bad news means bad publicity and should not blame the messenger. But that doesn’t mean they will. I remember one big company I covered scheduled a meeting with me and my editors. They had done a survey that showed most 75 percent of their media coverage was favorable; but my coverage was only 66 percent favorable. There were no complaints of factual errors. My nice ratio just wasn’t up to snuff! And this was from people who pretty much liked and respectedÂ me. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t try to lean on me.
Third,Â the threeÂ most important things in source management are accuracy, accuracy and accuracy. When you’re right and youÂ publish something negative about them, itÂ may make them fume, but that heatÂ is all directed inward; they have to get pissedÂ at themselves. At the same time, when you get it right, people come out of the woodwork to help. (Here’s a link to a site suggesting how broacast media solicit viewer tis; it’s even easier with online media, where e-mails or comments areÂ a click away).
Fourth,Â understand your personal style and use it to best advantage. I am loud and obvious.Â Subtlely doesn’t work for me so I generally barge right into any conversation and say here’s what I’m after; are you ready to help? For me it works. Perhaps you’re a littleÂ more shy. You hang back. That’s OK too. As long as you’re a good listener and you doÂ the right background research, you’ll succeed in getting interviews. (More interview tips here.)Â
Fifth, be nice to people. Make it pleasant to talk with you. I am, as I heard a friend say just the other night, a “chatty Cathy.” A little banter goes a long way in soothing ruffled feelings. It is especially helpful when you’re trying to get through to important people to establish some rapport with their handlers or secretaries; if these screening people think you’re rude, you go to the bottom of the pile; if they take pity on you they can occasionally make the boss call you back.
Sixth, under no circumstances scream at sources at the top of your lungs, using foulÂ curses learnedÂ while growing upÂ in Brooklyn and perfected while serving in the Navy –Â as I have done on two, separate occasions in my career. In both cases I delivered that stream of invectiveÂ through theÂ telephone which, givenÂ my volume at the time,Â was hardly necessary. You may not even want to pound the table, as I did in a third, face-to-faceÂ interview that still, some four years later, makes my blood boil. Having spent much of my life getting angry, IÂ have learnedÂ that anger almost never works to my advantage. So take a deep breath and exhale slowly. And if the anger hasn’t passed, do it again. I do it. And sometimes it even works 🙂