News reporters often call on Extension staff for their subject matter expertise. Harnessing the power of the media is one way we an efficiently share information, best practices, and new findings to large and niche audiences.
Watch the recent training presented as part of the Extension Wednesday Wake Up series. Presentation slides from that training are available, and we have a handy media relations guide you can keep handy.
The following suggestions will help you keep the message simple and reduce the chance of being misquoted.
Develop relationships with media outlets
Media outlets want valuable content and Extension has it!
- Build a regional or topical media contact list
- Understand content specialties for reporters/outlets. What will motivate that reporter?
- Build relationships before you pitch a story. Call and introduce yourself. Understand their staff hierarchy – who should you pitch to? Tour their studio/newsroom if possible. Sometimes it's easier to get in touch on social media.
- Create health boundaries: Set up regular times to provide content through bi-weekly or monthly columns or news segments.
Pitching a story
Think about why your item is news? Why is it important for the media cover?
- News values: Timeliness, proximity, impact, novelty, conflict
- Exclusivity/Scarcity: Get the scoop!
- “We’re working with this newspaper on this story and we wanted to let you know first”
- Don’t be boxed in by Extension program areas. If you're not able to cover a particular topic, maybe a colleague can.
An interview request
- When a reporter contacts you, don't feel pressured to respond immediately. Give yourself time to prepare by setting a follow-up call. Ask:
- When is your deadline?
- What types of questions on what topic will you be asking?
- What time can I call you back for the interview?
- If you cannot meet the need immediately, you can refer them to another expert or push the interview to a later time.
Before the interview
- Prepare: Pick two or three key points and have them in front. If you get flustered, circle the conversation back to your key points. Keep sentences short. Use common words, not acronyms or Extension jargon. Assume the viewers or readers are beginners. You can work your way up to more complicated topics if you've given them a good, introductory foundation.
- If the topic relates to an upcoming program, have the details and registration information available as a short, custom URL.
- Offer the reporter: Logos, a headshot, a name pronunciation guide, photos or video, the Extension boilerplate.
During the interview
- Be yourself. Relaxed and conversational is always good, but remember, you're representing University of Illinois, so focus on your subject matter expertise.
- Remember, you're always "on-the-record" even in your casual conversation prior to the official interview, so choose your words and actions carefully.
- If you don't know an answer, don't guess. Say, "I don't know, and I'll follow up with more information later."
For a TV interview
- Consider wearing clothing with the Extension logo and name tags. Avoid busy patterns and stripes, accessories that could make noise or be distracting, solid green.
- Remember to silence your phone. Look at the person you're talking to and speak in 30 to 60 second "sound bites."
- Keep your eyes on the reporter, not on the camera. Pretend it's a simple conversation you're having across the table. Assume the camera is always on until the host gives you the all clear. Even then, be professional.
After the interview
- Provide the reporter with additional resources they can use to build the rest of their story. Give them solid, research-based information from University of Illinois or refer them to additional experts on the topic.
- You can ask to review the story if you wish, but expect to hear no.
- Follow up to emphasize a point or to provide more information. "I just wanted to reiterate this and that you have this link..."
After the story airs/is published
- Track your media hits.
- Like and share it on social media.
- Share it with Extension leadership to raise visibility and impact.
- Follow up with the reporter to thank them.
Tricky or "gotcha" questions
If you're asked to speak on a potentially contentious topic, such as funding, office relocations, or local issues, don't say "no comment."
- Redirect: Rephrase the question and point to information that isn’t controversial.
- Delay: Buy yourself time. “Let me gather some information and get back to you on that one.”
- Refer: An off-topic or hot-button question is best answered by public affairs or another communications team.
Avoid answering these questions:
- What's your opinion on...
- Anything related to the University: Politics or policy decisions, Illinois sports or mascots.
- Anything off-topic.
If you refer someone to public affairs, notify them as well as Extension Communication Director Bridget Lee-Calfas and Public Affairs. The Communication Director can also assist you with talking points to keep interviews focused.
- Public Affairs: email@example.com, (217) 333-501
- Bridget Lee-Calfas: firstname.lastname@example.org, (217) 333-6282
If the topic involves county boards or elected officials, include the Extension assistant director of government relations in your preparation.
Socialize these tactics within your team so that anyone who might get a call knows how to respond if approached.
- Prepare approved talking points
- Stay calm
- Ask clarifying questions: What is your deadline? When will this air/be printed?
- Reiterate the question being asked
- Delay: “I’m going to need to speak to our staff/director to get you those answers.” "Can you email me your questions so that I can connect with others on this subject?”
- Referral: “I can put you in touch with our state program leader/marketing and communications director/university public affairs office.”
- Don’t say “no comment”
Reference: How to Respond to Questions from the Media, Preparing For and Giving Great Interviews, South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organization, as part of the Colorado Nonprofit Association's P&P Communications Toolkit.