When Can You Trust a Journalist? Seven Questions to Ask

Crisis PR: Overview

During a crisis my m/o is to give journalists as much help as possible; they are doing a tough job under time-pressure and often struggling to get up to speed on an issue that’s new to them. 

But there’s a quid pro quo. I ask for something in return 


After over 30 years as a journalist, and 20 as a corporate affairs consultant, mainly in Crisis PR, I’ve learnt the discipline of asking journalists relevant questions about their queries, before helping them with their stories. 


It’s a basic principle for a good consultant to politely interrogate a path to the truth. 


If the journalist can enlighten me on their story, I can better brief them, and I can better brief the spokesperson. It’s also a way to minimise the mistakes that often occur. A side benefit is that I might learn something because journalists often have insights I lack.


My recommendation for a consultant is to ask your own questions before agreeing to answer the journalist’s.


Two reasons in Crisis PR for asking these questions:

  1. Determining as much as possible how the story will look when it’s published.
  2. Determining, as much as possible, the benefit versus the risk of being involved in the story.

The seven critical questions:

1. What is the story about?

Pretty straightforward


2. What is the angle?

The angle is the critical element in a story. There is a lot of pressure on a journalist to come up with a fresh angle, preferably controversial, so this is an area of risk for a company. 


You mustn’t be scared to explore: Is it negative for my client? Is it a business angle, or a social angle? Am I going to like reading/watching it? What’s a potential headline, first para, picture if it’s for a paper (you can offer suggestions)?


It’s important to understand the journalist’s agenda – to write something interesting for his/her audience. 


Most journalists are forthcoming on the angle, although different publishers have evolved different cultures on this. In my experience (and I know this is a generalisation) in Australia, News Corp journalists tend to be more forthcoming than Nine and the ABC. If you get push-back on describing the story angle, you may sense there is a risk in cooperating.


Critically, this is not meant to be a combative conversation; it’s about developing a collaboration, from the client’s side dependent on the risk. 


And this is all about developing a benefit/risk analysis. 


3. Who else is being interviewed and what are they saying?

This will give you good additional information on how the story will look. Are the other speakers critics or supporters? Are they industry insiders or activists? Do we know them? Can we suggest other people to speak to, who will support our side of the story?


Again, if you get push-back on this, the risk factor goes up!


I don’t believe there is any logical reason for a journalist to conceal who else they are speaking to, unless their intentions are dishonest.


4. What are the areas of questions for my client?

You can’t expect specific questions, but a forthcoming journalist can give you areas of questioning or issues that will be raised. 


You can also gain agreements here on, first, no surprise questions, and second, that if anything relevant comes up after the interview (and before publication) that you will be given the opportunity to respond. 


Again there is no logical reason for withholding this information. Our spokesperson is going to be better prepared if we know what issues are being canvassed. 


Some journalists will be forthcoming, and a mutual trust can develop; other journalists will be secretive, in which case trust cannot develop.

5. What is the deadline? 

Straightforward. However, with the recent changes to defamation laws, there is a greater emphasis on a journalist’s fairness. This means we can often get a story held-over, delayed, if we need time to prepare


6. When is publication?



7. How long/substantial will the story be?

A news grab (which may include a 7-10 secs grab) involves an entirely different preparation to an extended interview for a longer story.



Some journalists fear that if they are forthcoming with the above it will scare off the spokesperson – the opposite is mostly the case. No spokesperson likes to go into an interview without being prepared.


Armed with the above material a spokesperson is more likely to favourably make the critical decision – ‘Am I better off participating, or not?’ – as he/she is better able to prepare.


It also allows us to anticipate fall-out from the story. During this conversation we:

  • can gain a mental picture of exactly how the journalist envisages the story
  • gain a feeling for the trustworthiness of the journalist
  • can suggest options to include in the story
  • can gauge whether or not to cooperate
  • anticipate if the story will spread to social media. Will it lead to more stories, or will the issue pass quickly? 


This may seem overkill – most of the time this discipline isn’t necessary, but in our business of communications, you’re not remembered for the things you do right. It’s that one story in twenty that goes haywire that can become your legacy.

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