Media Training Services

When reporters call… are you prepared?

UBC Public Affairs provides the campus community with comprehensive media training designed to assist faculty and staff in becoming more effective in their interactions with print, radio, and broadcast reporters. To discuss media training opportunities for yourself or your group, please contact Lucie McNeill, Public Affairs’ Director, at 604.822.2064 or  lucie.mcneill@ubc.ca.


The case for talking to journalists

Print and broadcast media are powerful and influential and reach out to touch people in all walks of life.

Just think of the millions of people who read daily newspapers; who listen to newscasts and talk shows on the radio; who view evening news events on television; and who subscribe to magazines and trade journals.

Here at UBC, we rely on the provincial and federal governments and on funding agencies for the more than $741 million it takes to finance the university each year.

Consequently, it is crucial that we do whatever we can to demonstrate to governments, agencies, taxpayers and donors that their money is well spent.

One of the most effective and far-reaching ways to get that message across is through print and broadcast media.

Getting the message across

As respected members of the community who are making an important contribution to society, university faculty and researchers often are called upon to share their expertise.

In responding to this opportunity, faculty obtain greater public awareness of their achievements and the university receives recognition for its efforts in the social, cultural and economic life of the country.

Stories that demonstrate how UBC is energetically pursuing its mission of excellence not only make a persuasive argument for recruiting top-flight faculty and students, they encourage financial support.

By working with the media in the right way — by being frank, honest and accessible — the university can communicate its mission in the best light.

Putting your best foot forward

Communicating information successfully to the media requires a well-prepared strategy and an understanding of what the media expects from you.

The information here provides a framework so that when journalists call, you can take control and respond in a relaxed and confident manner.

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Who are reporters?

Reporters are professionals who attempt to convey information in the most interesting and accurate way possible. But, as in any profession, there are good practitioners and bad practitioners.

Most reporters are generalists who cover anything that is considered worthy of air time or newspaper space. Generally, they are not experts in a particular area.

Beat reporters, however, are assigned routinely on a specific subject. After many years covering their beats, some develop a working knowledge in areas such as medicine, science, environmental issues, and business.

Deadlines: Reporters represent the public’s right to know and they attempt to be as objective as they can.

However, the constant pressure to meet deadlines makes their job extremely difficult. Deadlines force reporters to prepare a story, whether or not they can present both sides.

Radio: Radio reporters work under deadlines that are so tight, they can be writing a piece literally seconds before it goes on the air.

Because they are limited to approximately 30-60 seconds to present their stories, they look for lively voice clips of about 15 seconds which describe the “bottom line” of what the issue is and why it is relevant.

During a radio interview, try to sum up your point into succinct sentences. Relax and talk as you would in any normal conversation.

Television: TV reporters and producers seek to inform and entertain viewers with exciting visual images and sound.

Pictures are the essential ingredient for a TV story, therefore, anticipate questions about the visual aspects of your research — keeping in mind its future applications.

Like radio reporters, TV reporters have a limited amount of time in which to present their stories. They must simplify information to keep stories to an average length of 90 seconds.

Print: Print reporters include those who work for daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and wire services.

Often, they want a lot more detail than broadcast reporters do because they do not have the benefit of using visual and audio imagery. They rely on vivid description to make their stories understandable and entertaining.

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When a reporter calls

  • Call back promptly.
  • Find out what information the reporter is seeking and what information he/she already has obtained.
  • Determine whether you are the most knowledgeable and responsible person to deal with the subject.
  • Find out how the information will be used — whether the reporter wants a simple quote for a short news story or extensive background for a feature story.
  • Buy time to prepare for the interview.
  • Find out what type of deadline the person has to meet and do your best to give him/her as much time as possible before that deadline.

Planning your interview strategy

Being prepared will help you take control of an interview. Knowing the facts you want to get across to the interviewer and dealing only with those facts will give you control.

Remember, you’re the expert

Stay within your area of expertise and responsibility. The minute you leave your territory, you could get mugged.

Don’t hesitate to challenge the interviewer in a friendly manner if he/she has made an irresponsible insinuation.

If you are not sure about something, tell the journalist that and promise to get back with an answer right away, or refer him/her to another faculty member who might be more qualified to answer that specific question.

Make it easy on yourself: anticipate questions

Asking yourself what is new and significant about your research will help you formulate clear, concise answers.

Immediately stress the impact your message will have on the public whenever possible and summarize that message in one or two sentences.

You can follow up by providing the basic information that fills out any good news story. Think of the “Five-Ws”:

  • who is involved
  • what is the issue
  • when is it taking place
  • where is it taking place
  • why is it an issue?

Make it easy on the reporter: provide background and context

Often reporters are forced to deal with an area or topic that is completely new to them. Sometimes they don’t have any information about the subject.

Never assume a reporter understands everything you say. Try not to make the interview confusing by using technical language that has special meaning to you but sounds like a foreign language to a reporter. Keep your answers as simple and straightforward as possible and don’t hesitate to define a term very carefully to avoid misunderstanding. Use analogies to convey a simple, graphic image.

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Ground rules

Adhering to a firm set of ground rules will keep you out of hot water and will allow you to maintain your credibility and that of the university.

  • Don’t fudge. Discuss only the facts and refuse to speculate. During persistent questioning by a reporter, you can get caught up in speculation and your credibility could be questioned.
  • Avoid “no comment.” It implies you have something to hide. Answer the question to the best of your ability or buy time to come up with a suitable answer. If you feel you cannot answer a question because it concerns a confidential matter, tell the reporter that. If you are reluctant to respond because the question pertains to a controversial matter, buy time to get advice from university administrators and/or the Public Affairs Office, whose staff has extensive expertise in dealing with media.
  • Never speak “off the record,” that is, providing information, which may help the reporter understand, but which cannot be reported. Anticipate the possibility that anything you say could appear in front-page headlines.
  • Don’t tell the reporter your problems. Your casual complaints could end up in a news story.
  • Don’t feel pressured. If you feel you are not the right person to talk, say so.

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Handling tough situations

While most stories about the university feature research and expert analysis, there are times when administrators and faculty members must respond to controversial issues.

If you find yourself in the middle of controversy, it is almost always best to deal with it in as direct a manner as possible.

If the reporter has enough information, he/she will go ahead with the story, regardless of whether you agree to an interview. That results in a one-sided story and can give the impression that you have something to hide.

Before you go ahead with the interview, buy time to decide how to handle the situation — or to get advice from university administrators.

If there are tough questions or negatives that you know will be raised, take the initiative and bring them out before the journalist does. This way, you can deal with them on your own terms and set a more positive tone.

Be prepared for those negative questions, but keep pushing the positive.

Listen carefully to the reporter’s questions. If you are asked a leading question, refute it. Don’t be coaxed into making speculative statements that might backfire on you.

Try to be patient, even if the reporter is being aggressive and antagonistic.

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Who has editorial say?

Don’t expect to approve the text of your interview before it is printed or broadcast. Journalists are under no obligation to show you advanced copies of their stories or to read back your quotes. You may be asked to go over specific points to ensure the information is correct. However, do not expect retractions for minor inaccuracies which do not change the point of the overall story.

In the case of a serious mistake, where your credibility and that of the university is in question, immediately contact the reporter to discuss a retraction or a correction. If you need assistance, staff members in the Public Affairs Office are available at all times to provide help.

If you feel you have been discredited or seriously misquoted by a newspaper or magazine, you have the option of writing a letter to the editor. Write a short, concise correction, using facts to back it up.

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Public Affairs: Here to help

If you are faced with a potentially controversial situation, it is crucial that you discuss the matter with communications staff in the Public Affairs Office before it becomes public. Public Affairs’ communications staff members have extensive experience in print and broadcast media and deal with journalists regularly. They will help plan a media strategy, deciding whether and when to go public, anticipating reporters’ questions, and planning a positive response.

As well, communications staff members handle inquiries from journalists who require faculty members and administrators to provide expert analyses. They locate the expert who can provide the best information on a specific topic and determine whether he / she is willing to speak on the record.

Faculty members hoping for coverage on their latest research should contact communications staff who can determine the most newsworthy focus for the story, then target media organizations for interviews.

For further information, please contact Public Affairs.