How should I handle a request from a journalist?

Before thinking about how you might contact a journalist, you would do well to consider how to respond when a journalist contacts you. This could be by email, over the phone, or even in person. Your response to a journalist’s request will determine you and your brand’s appearance to the outside world. For startups, your response might be a customer’s first interaction with your brand. It will also determine its reputation, so it’s very important to respond with purpose.

How to respond to a journalist's email

Journalists will most often contact you using email. They might want to arrange a phone call or video call later on, but email is the first step in the majority of cases.

Responding to a journalist’s questions in an email is the easiest way to handle a request. It allows you time to consider how to formulate your answers and research when you’re unsure. It also means that you can easily defer the journalist to a colleague whose experience and knowledge might better suit the information required. A journalist might want to know about your company’s finances, for example. In that case, you might prefer to allow your director of finance to respond.

Developing the skill to respond to a journalist’s requests in a way that provides the most benefit to your company takes years. That’s why companies hire PR agencies that bring the experience with them. But there are a few basic elements founders of early-stage startups can use when they’re yet to hire an agency or in-house PR staff.

It’s also worth highlighting at this point that PR might not achieve the aims that some companies seek. Top-level software companies that only sell their products to a very specific group of businesses, for example, might rely on word-of-mouth to grow sales. They might want to consider hiring a PR agency at a later date, and for different reasons, than a consumer application brand.

The best advice is to imagine how you would like your customers and investors to describe your brand. Then base your approach to your responses on that. Always remember: you do not need to answer every question if you feel unable to. It’s always better to defer than to provide misleading or false information.

1. Tell the truth

This might seem obvious, but many companies have made the mistake of twisting the truth or even straight out lying to journalists. This often ends very badly for the brand involved. Even in bad situations, telling the truth will show others that you tried to do the right thing. That will protect your reputation.

2. Focus on solutions

It’s the purpose of your company to provide a solution to a problem in society. You should adopt the same approach to your public relations. It is, of course, important to establish the context of a solution by describing the problem. But focussing your responses on the solution will build the most beneficial brand image.

3. Check your work

Always ask a colleague (or two) to review your responses before you click send. Your response might sound appropriate in the moment, but others might read it with a different tone. A journalist will be even more critical. Colleagues can help you to refine the response. They’ll also help to notice any factual or grammatical errors.

How to respond to a request over the phone or in person

There’s a small chance that a journalist might call you first before emailing. In these cases, it would be best to respond by asking the journalist to send questions in an email or to arrange a meeting for which you can prepare. Responding on the spot will reduce the time you have to consider the potential consequences of your response. We’ll describe how to prepare and attend an interview in the next post.

We would advise the same for any requests that journalists pose at events or conferences. These might, however, prove harder to deflect. Thirty minutes spent preparing for potential questions before a conference or trade fair can help in situations when you do want to respond. We suggest revising:

1. Company news

Establish with your colleagues what news you can share with a journalist, and which details of that news.

2. Potential stories

Journalists are always looking for new stories. You can attract their attention to your own company by offering insight about industry trends you’ve noticed or stories that they might have missed. They might even quote you in their article or offer you a slot on their broadcast.

3. Plan

Stick to it. Only talk about what you’ve decided you’re happy to talk about beforehand - even if the journalist presses you for the information. You can always say that you need to double-check and respond in an email later on.