Not long ago received a call from a client about a call that he received from a reporter. The reporter was asking about our listing of a large industrial site important to the area’s economic development efforts. The reporter wanted to know if the company was shutting down. They weren’t. In fact, they were expanding. So we had a good “spin” for the reporter.
But the problem was that we were negotiating with a buyer and weren’t ready for this to go public. We didn’t want any media attention at this point. We were hoping that news of the sale would not hit for another 90 days.
I reached out to a trusted friend and former reporter whom I’ve worked with for years, Kerry Singe. Kerry and I worked together for years when she was a reporter at the Charlotte Observer. She would call me from time to time to ask questions about deals or the market. Now she works for herself and helps real estate professionals (including me) with marketing.
I asked her opinion on how to make the reporter go away, and she had some sobering news.
Had the reporter been calling because she had heard a rumor, we could have punted. But Kerry pointed out that the reporter had something we couldn’t ignore – a copy of the offering memorandum. From a reporter’s perspective, obtaining concrete documents like this is golden when pursuing a story. In this case, the reporter had something that we’d written up that confirmed the property was for sale.
There was no making this story go away.
Here’s the new reality you need to know about local journalism. Years ago, when newspapers had full staff and time for relationship building, my client could have negotiated some time in exchange for an exclusive. But the time for reporters and sources to develop such a trusted relationship is in short supply these days. Also, as Kerry explained it, reporters are scrambling to cover more stories than ever. The push to break news first is relentless and the competition fierce.
Plus, the news was legitimately a big deal for the region. Kerry said any good reporter would pursue the story and run with it.
So, with that in mind, we crafted an approach to make the best of the situation.
Here are some of the highlights for what to do when a reporter calls (and you aren’t happy about it):
Assess the full situation before responding. Do you have a relationship with this reporter or publication? Is the topic they want to discuss sensitive? How does the reporter know what she knows? Are they calling based on rumors, or do they have first-hand knowledge?
In my situation, we did not have a relationship with the newspaper, although we knew it was a respected local daily paper. The reporter had a document showing the property was for sale, so there was enough for her to publish a story without our comment. We decided to participate and respond to the reporter with a statement.
Take a deep breath and then craft a thoughtful response. You may not be able to control what the reporter writes, but you can provide an answer that controls damage.
I reached out to my client and the project team so we were all on the same page. Everyone was involved in crafting a statement to be issued to the press. We decided to highlight the economic development opportunities that the sale created. Also, pointing out that anyone going by the site can see that there was an expansion underway. The company was going nowhere.
Be clear and specific in your response. When issuing a statement, provide as many specifics as you can or want to (such as confirming the acreage). This helps ensure the reporter gets the details right. Make sure statements aren’t vague or can be interpreted in multiple ways. You don’t want the reporter to have to guess at what you are saying.
Don’t accidentally open a can of worms. Less can be more. Kerry shared a story about how one client almost started a conversation they were hoping to avoid by bringing the subject up before they were asked about it. A reporter had asked a company to explain why they chose a specific building. A company spokeswoman wanted to include in the reply that the company had not taken into account or needed the incentives they had received. However, the reporter hadn’t asked about incentives, so the company was advised not to mention them. A case can be made for being the first to bring up a sensitive subject regarding press attention. But sometimes it’s best that you don’t bring up what you don’t want to discuss.
Expect surprises. The story may not be what you think it is. In my case, we were worried about a negative story being written about potential disruption from the sale of the property. It turned out the reporter was writing about trends in corporate relocations.
Ultimately, while we weren’t initially excited about the attention from the press, things turned out fine. During this exercise, Kerry reminded me that reporters have important, and often stressful, jobs to do. It serves everyone to be courteous and professional, even if we are pissed off to haven gotten the call in the first place.
When the deal closes, I look forward to reaching out to this reporter. I’m hopeful she’ll be receptive when we have good news to share.