12 Most Damaging Things to Say to a Journalist

12 Most Damaging Things to Say to a Journalist


Press and media coverage can greatly boost your profile and help to build reputation, credibility and trust. Getting the attention of journalists is one thing, but how you handle speaking to them is another. Get that wrong and you could well put your reputation, and that of your business, at risk.

So, here are 12 tips for what you shouldn’t say to a journalist in a chat or a formal interview.

1. “I want to approve what you write”

Of course, you want a favorable write up from a journalist, who wouldn’t? Unfortunately, the cold reality is that the journalist’s loyalty isn’t to you but to their editor and to their readers, viewers and listeners. The third party endorsement of being featured in the press and media is incredibly powerful. Remember, however, that while you control the information you give to a journalist, you cannot control what they do with it. You should never demand to see copy or feel like it is your right to see and approve it.

2. “Off the record”

The phrase “off the record” is sometimes misunderstood and this is often where individuals can trip up. Many people assume that “off the record” means that you can’t be identified as a source of information or a quote. While you may not be named, the journalist can still make reference to your gender, your job role and who you work for — a combination of those could well make you recognizable.

3. “No comment”

Quite simply, the phrase “no comment” smacks of guilt or suggests you have something to hide. There are so many ways to handle a tricky media interview and to steer the conversation around, but “no comment” is not one of them. As well as suggesting guilt and putting doubt into the minds of listeners and readers, it also encourages the journalist to probe further until they get an answer they are satisfied with.

4. Lie

Even if you feel under extreme pressure in an interview with a journalist, there is no excuse for lying. If you don’t know the answer to a question, then there is no problem with admitting that and saying you will come back to them with an answer. The key is to follow up and provide the additional information you promised. If you lie, then you start to dig yourself into a hole that becomes very difficult to get out of and you could easily find your reputation in tatters once the lie has been exposed.

5. “This is the story you should write”

A journalist isn’t interested in you or your business, but they are interested in news and ideas that will inform, educate and engage their readers, viewers and listeners. They are always interested in the human interest aspect in any story and how that impacts on, and benefits, their respective audiences. So, telling a journalist what they should write is a sure fire way of getting all future approaches and pitches ignored.

6. Offer an “exclusive” when it isn’t

Nothing gets a journalist more excited than the thought of an exclusive. It’s something that can catapult careers to the highest levels. If you have a story, then you want to get as much coverage for it as possible, but you have to decide in advance whether you issue it to all your relevant contacts in one go or offer it as an exclusive to an individual journalist. There are pros and cons to both, but never offer the story as an exclusive to several journalists at the same time. In the short term, you might get coverage — but if it will damage future relations beyond repair, it just isn’t worth it.

7. Promise something you can’t deliver

Whether you have been contacted by a journalist out of the blue or in response to a news announcement you have issued, it’s important not to get carried away. Journalists work to tight timeframes and good working relations with them are built on being reliable and trustworthy — that means delivering on your promises regarding information, comment and help. So, don’t over promise and get clarity on deadlines if you are going to come back to them with further information.

8. That you’ll take the story to a competitor if they don’t use it

There are many reasons why a journalist may not use your story including timing, the space available in a target publication, weak appeal, lack of human interest, or that similar stories having been already covered recently. That’s just the way it goes and you should never take a refusal personally or try to force the issue. You are better off taking the time to find out why the story does not appeal so that you can make future approaches stronger.

9. “I can’t do an interview” — when you’ve approached them in the first place

If a journalist approaches you out of the blue for an interview, then it’s your job to get as much information as possible to decide whether doing the interview would be helpful for you and your business or not. If, however, you have issued a press release or a comment, then you need to make yourself available for interviews. It’s frustrating for a journalist to have an opportunity for a story presented to them, but then find that following up is difficult because key contacts are unavailable or inaccessible. There is no excuse for that and it can be highly damaging.

10. “It’s all in the press release — just read that”

Journalists are under extreme pressure and may only scan a few lines of a press release before wanting to speak to you to get the full story. It’s important not to make any assumptions about what they have read or what they understand. The aim of the press release is to get a journalist to contact you. So, make the most of it when they do.

11. “You shouldn’t have written that about my company”

If you or your business have not been represented fairly in the press and media, then it can be distressing and stressful. You need to take emotion out of the situation, however, and ask yourself whether the facts reported are accurate and whether you were clear in what you said to the journalist. There is room for recompense and for complaining if you feel you have not been treated well and it has damaged your reputation, but think carefully about progressing with this. You don’t want to build a reputation for being someone who complains all the time and makes threats.

12. Anything you say to a journalist when the official chat or interview is over

Once the interview has finished and the dictaphone or microphone is switched off, then you still need to stay in interview mode. Never assume the interview is over until you are safely back at your desk or at home. What you say after the interview can still be reported and there have been many high profile instances where reputations have been damaged as a result. Don’t fall into that trap.

Make the most of speaking to journalists but avoid these common pitfalls to keep your reputation intact and to build long lasting working relations with them.
What tips would you share for speaking to journalists to add to this list?

Featured image courtesy of John Liu licensed via Creative Commons.

Debbie Leven


Debbie owns and runs PR Coach, helping small business service providers get their messages across and get noticed online, offline and in the media via Public Relations (PR) consultancy, coaching and products. Debbie has worked in PR for more than 20 years and her mission is to help as many small businesses as possible identify and make the most of PR opportunities to help them build their reputation, their brand and their business.

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Gary Singh
Gary Singh

#13 - We placed an ad in your publication, so why aren't you writing about us?

Gary Singh
Gary Singh

#13 -- We put an ad in your publication, so why aren't you writing about us?


Thanks Julia.  You raise a very good point about 'embargo' - that's a whole new post I think!  It's a term that sometimes gets misunderstood and misused too.  If you are sending out a news story under embargo then it simply means that you are asking the journalist not to publish or broadcast it before a given time on a specific date.  It gives the journalist time to do some research and to do interviews to put the piece together. 

The other issue that sometimes comes up is over use of embargo - that can be equally frustrating for journalists, an embargo on a story when there is no obvious reason for it. 

Julia Lewis
Julia Lewis

Great tips here - thanks Debbie. Having worked in the voluntary sector for a while now we've had to learn the hard way about being willing to let go of a story, and doing your risk assessment ahead of offering it out, rather than trying to manage it afterwards. I'd probably add another 'not to do' tip - something I did when I started out, and which irritated the journalist no end: If the story's embargoed, make it clear on the release and in your email/conversation, but don't bang on about it so that the journalist starts to feel you don't trust them. 


This is a great list. When I used to work as a journalist I used to hear numbers one and two all the time. Would love to see more Debbie.