Contractor sting or light-hearted personality profile, it always pays to be prepared when a reporter comes with questions.

Growing a company is most every contractor's dream. Of course "success" is measured differently, but by and large, success in contracting has often been gauged through sales volume (larger), revenues and profits (steadier), and public awareness of your company (from which to draw greater clientele and derive personal achievement).

Now, we'll leave the greater volume and revenues for other articles. What about greater exposure? Have you ever noticed that heightened public recognition can sometimes work in opposing ways? Company notoriety can also carry with it unanticipated and unwanted effects.

Such can be the case with local media coverage of your company, whether it be TV, radio or newspaper. You're a big industry player now - at least in your community - and people are naturally going to want to know what you're up to.

The problem is, if people want to know, there's almost always a reporter somewhere who wants to know, too. Are you prepared if a reporter shows up on your doorstep - or worse yet storms into your office unannounced, cameraman in tow, in quest of the latest (real or otherwise) local contractor sting. If you're like most of us, the answer is "no."

Though the chances of such an event are admittedly slim, it does happen everyday - and think of the damage it could cause if handled poorly. Remember, too, that you don't necessarily have to have done anything wrong! Mistakes and complicated (sometimes heated) situations do arise in our industry and before you know it you can be dragged into a messy, tangled fray that is none of your doing.

Once on the slippery slope, one misinterpreted quote or one over-achieving (imaginative?) reporter can undo in five minutes what may have taken you years to earn. So it pays to be prepared.

Real Life

I recently spoke with a plumbing contractor who claims to have been victimized by over-enthusiastic reporting. The topic under scrutiny by a local TV reporter was the use of flat-rate pricing to quote and invoice jobs. The reporter took a hard line against the practice and - possibly kindled and prodded by local competitors of the eventual target - set upon our contractor who used flat-rate as the local example of this insidious practice. Our contractor did get through it, but not without lessons learned. Here are a few tips that he passed along:
  • Conduct the interview on your turf, where you're comfortable and have everything at your disposal in case you need to back up a point.

  • Address only the issues that are set before you. It's no time to pontificate over the world's woes. The general rule of thumb is that the more the reporter takes away, the greater the opportunity for misinterpreted or out-of-context sound-bites. Keep the interviews short - five to 10 minutes if possible.

  • Keep your answers positive - even when discussing negative issues. No bashing fellow competitors, no statements about the media, and no whining. Acknowledge the issue. Let them know you're happy to assist and you welcome the opportunity to help the public better understand.

  • Work your company name and your commitment to the customer into the interview. Several times is better. You get a plug and it fills time while you compose yourself and mentally prepare for your next answer.

  • Don't be provoked, don't panic and never, ever become adversarial. If the reporter's intent was to paint you as a villain, you're giving him exactly what he wants.
This is all good advice. But of course, all interviews aren't of a negative nature. Sometimes reporters seek general information about certain topics or may even wish to do something 100 percent positive about you and your business, such as a company profile. But even then, be prepared for anything. So here are a few more general tips for being prepared for this set of circumstances:
  • Always find out ahead of time what it is that's going to be discussed and (if possible) get some or all of the questions ahead of time. Many reporters will do this in exchange for the interview. Obviously, this gives you more time to contemplate your responses. With questions in hand, prepare and rehearse the points you want to make. Again, the rule of thumb is to keep it positive.

  • By all means, answer questions honestly. Being cryptic or evasive will only arouse suspicion and that's the last thing you need. If you do find yourself getting into bad territory, continuing to talk will almost always make it worse. The best thing is to sum up and shut up. Then, don't panic, assess the damage, and use upcoming responses to work yourself back into better light.

  • Work in personal stories or examples from your past to illustrate your point. This personalizes your message and can help create reader/listener empathy.

  • Talk in the simplest terms possible. Remember your eventual audience. They're not as familiar with the industry and industry happenings as you. As much as possible, avoid technical jargon.