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Posted on 09.14.2010

How Reporters Get Info (and how you can get info to reporters, too)

Students of Media Relations 101 can you tell you the basic ways in which reporters generally gain information on a topic: press releases and interviews generally top the list, followed closely by “research.” Just 10 years ago this last category was fairly narrow.  Though online research would certainly have been included, it would likely have been limited to accessing things like company websites and online annual reports. But in the age of transparency and social media, reporters have an entirely new – and sometimes very revealing  – collection of information sources from which to draw. Researching an organization’s past media coverage is as simple as a Google search (literally); ditto for a company’s legal and regulatory filings. When reporters want to quickly locate the juiciest or most damaging past headlines, they will do an Internet search for the name  of a company along with terms like “crime” or “scandal” or “lawsuit.”  Google “hospital” and “sucks” together for quick demonstration. Business in several industries – such as healthcare, transportation and banking – are required to regularly post certain types of reports to transparency sites.  In many instances, the government does this for them. Visit Medicare’s Hospital Compare or the Office of the Comptroller or Currency for relevant examples – and be assured that healthcare and finance reporters are regularly doing this, too. But if a reporter is working hard on a story and really digging deep for info, he or she won’t stop there.  Here are just a few of the more creative places where good reporters find information – often with just a few key strokes:
  • Police reports
  • Accidental leaks (employees, investors, board members, vendors, clients, spouses)
  • Intentional leaks (current/past malcontents, plaintiffs’ attorneys, unions, competitors, whistleblowers)
  • Internal communications (posted memos, forwarded emails and intranet postings, employee list servs, social media groups)
  • Gripe sites (such as Ripoff Report and Telonu)
  • External blogs and other social media.
While this list can leave a company feeling rather exposed, consider that several of these same sources can be used to positively influence a reporter’s opinion:
  • A well written internal communication from a CEO to a company’s employees can communicate positive, constructive information in a seemingly personal manner.  For instance, a CEO is caught in an extramarital affair and it makes it into the local press; that CEO likely will not (and probably should not) do media interviews on the topic, but a concise, personal communication to employees apologizing for the distraction he’s caused and restating his commitment to his family and his colleagues can find its way to the media to deliver a neutralizing, human element to the story.
  • “Leaks” to the media don’t have to occur in clandestine meetings with muffled voices or anonymous notes.  Anyone with a positive relationship with a reporter has the potential to provide information “off the record” (just be prepared that you may actually find yourself “on the record” and in the story).  Speaking off the record can be particularly useful when you can point a reporter to an “on the record” source, such as a transparency site, legal filing, internal communication, etc.
  • Most news sites and many blogs allow readers to post comments about stories and postings.  A well-regarded company that gets a bum deal in a negative news story could encourage a selection of its customers, vendors and employees to make positive and counterbalancing posts about the company.  Posters should always disclose their relationship to a company, and should avoid getting into a tit-for-tat argument.  But a few comments along the lines of “I’m Wilma, I’ve been honored to work for ABC Company for 25 years and I find its leadership to be honorable and fair in everything they do” can go a long way.
  • Remember that a “praise platform” can go up just as quickly as a “gripe site.”  Positive Facebook posts from 500 happy employees can quickly offset the rant of a single former employee who left under negative conditions.  Just be careful not to react too much lest you perpetuate the debate; guidance from PR and reputation management professionals should be considered.
In today’s world, the media have instantaneous access to information – whether we like it or not.  Understanding the tools reporters keep in their laptops – and knowing how to use them to your own advantage – is important.

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