Denver Bar Association
October 2004
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Mind Your P’s with the Press

by Joey Bunch

by Joey Bunch
The Denver Post

As with humor, brevity is the soul of talking to the press.

Deadlines drive reporters crazy. There is never enough time. If there’s just enough time to talk to six sources, then we feel a compulsion to talk to eight. That’s just the way it is.

There is no time for a long-winded closing argument and lengthy summation when you’ve got a harried reporter on the phone.

The more you blather, the more you cloud your issues, and the more opportunities you give the reporter to foul up your message.

And I figure a rambling barrister is usually trying to dig his way out of a hole.

"No comment," of course, is the shortest answer of all. Unfortunately, it’s usually the worst.

When you pass on the chance to tell your clients’ side, you yield the floor to the other side to say whatever they wish, often uncontested, before the court of public opinion.

"Could not be reached for comment" in the newspaper says that either this lawyer doesn’t return his phone calls or his client is in such a mess that he can only run and hide.

Good lawyers do neither.

I’ve been calling lawyers for 23 years on everything from property rights to right-to-die, from taxes to murder.

The topic’s complexity doesn’t matter. The good lawyers are always the ones who take it head-on, make it simple, make it direct and make it say something the reporter (and their hundreds of thousands of readers) will remember.

When I hang up the phone after talking to a good lawyer, I hardly need to look at my notes to remember what he said.

His perfect quote will land in the second or third paragraph, or as the enviable last word. It will color the tone and thesis of the story.

Doing that, however, is easier said than done.

Good lawyers keep in mind the three P’s—pry, prepare and pursue.

When a reporter wants to talk to you, it would help to know as soon as possible exactly what he wants and where his angle is going.

That’s why you should start out by prying. Ask a few polite, subtle questions to find out what others are saying and what the reporter is thinking about all of this.

The less you talk and the more you listen at this juncture could go a long way in the next step—preparation.

Nearly every one of you would sooner flip off a judge than make a case before a jury without giving some thought to what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. But when it comes to giving an interview, you’ll wing it. Bad idea.

Do a little research before the reporter arrives, but don’t drone on with sidebars and long anecdotes that might steer the conversation far afield from the points you want to see in print. If you’re on the phone, while the reporter is talking about what others are saying, jot down three points you want to stick to, even if it’s little more than "1. My client didn’t do it, 2. Somebody else did it, and 3. The truth will win out in the end."

Don’t get sidetracked into talking about the price of tea in China, no matter how demanding or charming the reporter is.

In fact, a good lawyer can turn the tables, and have the press eating out of his hand rather than eating his lunch.

You do that with final P—pursue. A good lawyer isn’t afraid of questions and is sure of his position, so he has nothing to fear from a callback with follow-ups or more questions. He should hope to be the last person a reporter talks to, to have the chance to respond to anything inflammatory anyone is saying about his client.

Lawyers who are good at explaining complicated matters usually graduate from one-time mention to trusted source to regular contributor in short order. Invite reporters you trust to call you back anytime, to talk on- or off-the-record.

Now, about that perfect quote—here’s how you do it. Take your three or four talking points and see if they say anything profound to you. If they do, start summarizing and polishing. (If they don’t, you should probably redraft your talking points.)

The perfect quote says—in two sentences, maybe three—what you want everybody to know. And the more color and subtle poetry you slip in, the more likely your words will land in a pivotal spot and resonate over your opponent’s position.

Quotes are the paint on the wagon the reporter is building, so don’t hold back the color and shine. Use punchy verbs and short sentences.

Instead of saying, "My client is a victim of circumstance," try, "Rain sometimes falls on a sunny day, and my client just happened to get wet."

Not every good lawyer is a poet, but he can mind his P’s when it comes to the press: know what you’re talking about (pry); think about how you’re going to phrase it (prepare); and then build up relationships with reporters you trust (pursue).

Joey Bunch covers the environment for The Denver Post. He has been a writer and editor for 23 years.

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