Mark Evans: What To Do When A Reporter Calls

by Scott Reid

The phone rings. You pick up, and a reporter is on the other end of the line asking for comment about an incident that occurred earlier that day at your property. For many property managers, that’s enough to send their blood pressure skyrocketing and leave them at a loss of words of what to say next.

Your first impulse might be to go stick your head in the sand and hope the reporter goes away. But hope is not a strategy. While the reporter may go away, they will find someone else to talk to about what happened. And you might not like what that person has to say. Even worse, that person might not have their facts straight and could provide inaccurate information to the reporter, impacting your property’s reputation – and ultimately your leasing and renewal rates.

What do you do?

I have been on both sides of the fence in this situation. I started my career as a reporter and made the switch to public relations more than 20 years ago. In those 20 years, I have worked in both the public and private sectors and talked with hundreds, if not thousands, of reporters. Even so, I still pause every time I prepare to be interviewed by the media. So relax, you’re not alone.

I have spent much of the past five years working in student housing. The tips below about responding to reporters come from observations I have made in working with student housing communities around the nation.

Know Your Company’s Media Policy and Public Relations Contact

Make sure your staff also knows this policy. Some companies may allow onsite management to confirm facts about the property, such as number of residents, bed count or when the community opened, but ask that any media seeking comments be referred to the company’s public relations representative or regional manager. Others may require that all media calls be referred to the company’s public relations contact. Know your company’s policy ahead of time and have the appropriate contact information handy so that it may be passed along to the reporter.

Ask Questions

Tell reporters that you will be happy to have your public relations representative follow up with them. Ask the reporter for the following information:

  • Name
  • News organization
  • Type of information they are looking for
  • Who else they have spoken to
  • Story deadline
  • Contact information (phone number and email)

Try to find out the type of information the reporter needs, and promptly pass this information along to your company’s PR person. This will save time and help the PR person respond with the information requested by the reporter.

“No Comment”

Do not say “no comment.” It can come across as guilty and evasive. Instead, refer the person to your PR representative.

You might say instead:

“We are looking into this matter closely. Let me get your number so I can have our public relations person call you as soon as we have the information you need.”

“I’m not the right person to talk to about this issue, but let me get you in touch with the person who is. Could you give me your number, so that [he/she] can call you?”

“We are focused on serving our residents. I will be happy to have our company’s public relations person get right back with you. They are in a better position to answer your questions and help you obtain the information you need.”

Filming on Property

News media may ask to interview residents or take video of the property. These questions should be directed to the PR person. Many management companies do not allow any onsite coverage by news crews. Know your company’s policy ahead of time. You also should note that news crews may tape the property from a public area, such as a sidewalk or across the street. In many states, news crews also may interview residents on property if a resident invites them onsite.

Be polite 

Remember anything you say to reporters can be used in a news report, even if you are simply referring them to your company’s PR representative. Be as courteous and as helpful as possible while briefly explaining your company’s policy for handling media inquiries. Never come off as antagonistic with a reporter.

Reporters, like you, are simply doing their jobs. We may not like it that they are covering an incident on our property, but that is what they are paid to do. Our unwillingness to cooperate with a reporter does not mean their story will simply die or go away.

News media do cover good news as well. Just because a reporter calls you does not necessarily mean something bad has happened. Sometimes reporters may call because they are working on stories about an issue or trend in the apartment industry, or they may be covering a topic such as popular apartment community amenities preferred by college students. Sometimes, a reporter is simply looking for a local source in the apartment industry to offer perspective on a national story. All of these are great opportunities to build awareness about your property and/or your management company.

So relax, pick up the call from the reporter and find out what they need and how you can help them. Working with news media does not have to be a painful process.

— Mark Evans is the owner of On The Point Communications and works as PR consultant to several marketing firms. He is an expert in public relations, crisis communication and corporate communications with more than 20 years of experience behind him, and can be reached at [email protected].

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