Public Relations and Speaking to the Press
Favorable press coverage expands public knowledge of faculty and academic staff members' work, extending the university's mission of teaching, research and public service, and builds understanding and appreciation among people and groups important to the University, including funding agencies, faculty at other institutions, alumni, current and potential students and their families, legislators, and current and potential donors.
Often, the distribution of a news release from the University's News Office will encourage a reporter to contact the faculty or academic staff member. Such contact may take a few moments or, on major stories pursued by several news organizations, several hours. Some reporters understand the subject matter and are excellent interviewers; others are generalists or are inexperienced and may need considerable help to report accurately. In either case, media interviews often are necessary to serve the University and the public by providing thorough and accurate information.
Before the interview, faculty and academic staff members are advised to:
- Take down the reporter's name and news organization and ask what the topic will be and what questions the reporter will ask.
- Remember it is acceptable to decline an interview. It is best not to stonewall or use the words "no comment" these merely make reporters think there is something to hide. If someone else is a more knowledgeable or appropriate source, a faculty member may refer the reporter to that person.
- If caught off guard, say that it is inconvenient to talk right now and ask for the reporter's number to return the call shortly. You may then contact the News Office (773-702-8360) to discuss the best strategy.
- If the reporter and story seem legitimate, be helpful, frank and quick to respond to the request for an interview. A slow response allows what other interviewees say to shape the story in the reporter's mind.
During the interview, faculty and academic staff members are advised to:
- Assume everything said will be quoted, even if said in casual conversation or when the interview appears over.
- Give simple answers that cannot be misinterpreted. For guidance, feel free to call the News Office (773-702-8360).
- Remember that most audiences do not comprehend the diversity of views within a university; they perceive the institution, not the individual, speaking. Therefore it is best to avoid personal opinions when speaking for your colleagues, department or university. When giving opinions, particularly when discussing institutional issues or those involving controversy, it is best to make clear that you speak only for yourself.
- Have a few central points to make "one is best, three is maximum" clearly. One good approach is to say, "The two things everyone should understand are: One...".
- Speak to the reporter's audience, not just to the reporter, and explain what the information means to the public.
- Keep statements clear and concise, providing plain-language interpretations and metaphors. If you do not do it, the reporter may.
- Not let reporters lead you into saying something you do not wish to say. Some will try to feed you lines ("So, in other words, you are saying..."). If those words do not fairly capture what you said, correct the reporter. It is best not to repeat loaded words or phrases, even to deny the assertion, and better to avoid hypothetical questions.
- After the interview, feel free to call the News Office to discuss the interview, apprise the news staff of any surprising issues, or clarify any remaining questions.
The above rules also apply to broadcast interviews, but with a critical added factor: the lack of time. Unless you are the guest on a talk show, your comments may be cut down to twenty seconds or less.
- Be calm, positive, and natural. Speak in a normal, sincere tone and style without over-enunciating.
- Avoid jargon and acronyms, which distance you from the public. Give concrete, accessible examples.
- Remember appearance counts: Avoid clothing, jewelry or settings that draw attention to themselves. Seek a pleasant backdrop. People should react to your substance, not your style.
The News Office operates an extensive communications program on behalf of the University, helping both print and broadcast media describe significant achievements and activities of the University, its faculty, staff, and students. It also manages media relations, initiating and monitoring coverage and meeting media requests for information. If a faculty member has something timely and provocative to say, the office can help develop and offer op-eds to the appropriate news organization. No releases are distributed without full collaboration with the source. The News Office does not control what outside news organizations do with a release once it leaves University hands.
The News Office coordinates timing with faculty so as not to jeopardize an article's publication in a professional journal or a presentation at a professional meeting. Such coordinated timing often creates greater news coverage by providing a common release date, or "embargo date" for the story. Each campus unit is on the beat of a writer who keeps abreast of newsworthy developments and identifies University of Chicago experts for the press.
The News Office is located at 5801 S. Ellis Avenue, Suite 120. The phone is 773-702-8360, but the director and writers can also be reached via e-mail addresses listed in the campus directory. The Graduate School of Business (773-702-7128) and the Medical Center (773-702-6241) have their own Communications Offices to serve faculty and academic staff members in those areas.