It's a typical day at the office. You are doing what you usually do, which is pretty much, well, everything. Your phone rings. You debate answering. Do you really need one more problem dumped on you? You consider letting it go to voicemail. Then, responsible soul that you are, you pick it up and say hello.

Turns out it isn't one of your direct reports or one of your clients or vendors. It's a reporter. "Hi, this is Francine Smith with Your Industry Magazine." Your heart races and your stomach feels hollow. "I'd like to ask you a few questions about what's going on in the industry."

We know we want coverage. We think, "Wouldn't it be great if the press called us up instead of us having to send out press releases that never get picked up anyway?" We all have visions of the rest of the world valuing us, our companies, and our contributions. But what happens when a reporter really is on line one? A blessed few can pick up the phone and say brilliant things. The vast majority of us panic.

When we are caught completely off guard, the cortisol kicks in and we go blank. We freeze. It's like the man-in-the-street interview. There are a small select few who are comfortable, but most people get that wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look. All it takes is a camera, a microphone in our faces, or even just a reporter on the other end of the phone line, and we lose our ability to think and speak.

So what's one to do? The reporter's on the line, ready to ask questions, and you are completely unprepared. Here are a few failsafe tips for just that situation:

  1. Buy time. Ask the reporter what the focus of her story is and when her deadline is. Sometimes the media needs a comment right that instant, and sometimes they've got the luxury of a few days. Just an extra hour or two is probably all you need to gather your thoughts. Don't say you want time to think; simply suggest a later time. For instance, you might say, "I've got a break in my schedule at 3; shall we talk then?"

  2. Narrow the world and comment on what you know. No one can know everything, so adapt a reporter's question to make it fit what you do know. Be the expert on your own world. When a question is too broad for your liking or outside your scope, rein it in. For example, "The economy in general is anyone's guess, but I can tell you what I see here at our company and with our customers."

  3. Stick your neck out. Make a prediction. The dirty little secret about predictions is that unless you are the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, no one is going to go back later and check to see if you were right. You stand to gain far more by being reported on as someone with a perspective than you do by being silent, even if you turn out to be wrong.

    Predictions are an engaging sport for media. Think of the number of articles written every January about predictions for the coming year. We read them and perceive those quoted as expert resources, worthy of visibility, but no one goes back at the end of the year to see who was wrong. Those who have opinions about the future make the story; those who play it safe get cut and don't get called again.

  4. Use a cheat sheet. What are three things about your company that the general public would find interesting or want to know? What are three things about yourself? What are three opinions you have?

    Take out a piece of paper and list them. Then stash the page in the top drawer of your desk. It's your security blanket. Keep it right there and if you are ever caught off guard by a media call, pull it out. You'll have the comfort of knowing you've got something to say while the cortisol dissipates and your mind catches up.

When the press calls, respond. See what they are writing about and when their deadline is. Don't hem, haw, and hedge. Take the opportunity presented to you and reap the benefits of being a visible, expert resource.

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Cheryl McPhilimy provides visibility, communications and media relations coaching and consulting to companies and individuals in various industries. Visit