Media Training 19: Preparing for a Desk Side Visit

By Gerard Braud 

If you are a big organization, occasionally a reporter from a major media outlet will call and ask for permission to do a “desk side visit.”

Be careful. These can be deadly.

A desk side visit is when a reporter wants to come by the office, not to write a particular story, but to visit with key executives and get to know them. Most often the reporter will be with a major newspaper or magazine and usually the reporter has recently been assigned to cover all stories related to your company, non-profit, agency or business sector.

While it is true that the reporter wants to get to know you, the entire time they are with you they are taking notes that will be filed away and used as story ideas at a later time.

The big danger occurs when PR people get excited that a reporter wants to visit and when the executives let their guard down and enter into too many friendly, candid conversations with the reporter.

Take a guess what everyone needs to do before participating in a desk side visit? You guessed it… they need to go through media training.

I have seen an enormous number of executives go to confession with reporters during desk side visits, only to see their own words come back to haunt them months later in a report they didn’t even know the reporter was writing. Do you remember what I said about going to confession in lesson 12? I said if you go to confession with a reporter you’ll go straight to hell.

So what should media training look like for a desk side visit?

First, the communications team needs to haul out all of the company’s key messages and dust them off to make sure they are current. Ideally, the communications team should have a deep library of key messages with more written each time a new issue arises.

Next, you need to segregate your key messages according to the 3 bucket rule that we discussed in lesson 12. That means you need to identify the key messages that you must to say, which is bucket number 1. Then in bucket number 2 you will find the answers, or key messages, that you will use only if you are asked about certain issues.  Then in bucket number 3 you will have things that you cannot talk about at all.

Because people have an overwhelming compulsion to be honest, many people immediately begin telling reporters negative things that are usually kept in bucket number 2. I call this “opening the door.” Once you open the door, you’ve invited the reporter to enter and ask you many more questions. You have in essence opened Pandora’s Box and closing it is nearly impossible.

Many executives assume that everything in a desk side visit is “off the record.” It is not. Everything is on the record. And for the sake of clarity, never ever think that anything is off the record with a reporter. In fact, if a reporter ever invites you to speak off the record, you should refuse to do so. What you say to the reporter will always get traced back to you.

Likewise, be aware of reporters who ask you to speak on “background.”  This means they want you to tell them facts, but they promise not to quote you or attribute the facts to you. Again, the people you are talking about will be able to figure out that it was you who was trashing them.

When done correctly, a desk side visit can be a great way to create a positive perception about you and your company. In lesson 13 we talked about passing the vote of confidence or no confidence with a reporter. A desk side visit is a great way to pass the test of confidence.

Finally, if the desk side visit goes well, key executives may want to call the reporter from time to time to share tips about trends in your industry. Their purpose should never be to have the reporter write about you or your organization, but to establish yourself as a trusted expert and source. Your goal is also to establish a true relationship with a reporter. That’s why, after all, they call it media relations.

Ultimately, that relationship will pay off in the future and make it much harder for the reporter to write scathing or negative stories about you or your organization. There is a lot to be said for relationships.

In summary, a desk side visit could be your worst nightmare or it could turn out to be your best friend

In our next lesson we’ll examine how you can best internalize all those key messages we’ve been talking about.

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