Book Review

When the Headline is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media

By on Tuesday, July 2, 2013

If you have ever wondered why you walked out of a media interview feeling mis-quoted and wanted to do something about it, then When the Headline is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media by Jeff Ansell, is for you. This messaging guide helps public relations professionals and the people they help understand how to talk about the things that matter to them and respond honestly to questions from reporters.

Savvy messaging advice fills the book and worksheets help users craft their core messages. The book discusses how to talk with reporters and is especially good on dealing with “bad news” about one’s company or organization. Being accessible and forthcoming is soundly advised by the author, who notes the old PR adage, “Mess up, ‘fess up.” In particular, Ansell notes that a heartfelt remark from someone at the company, is going to build more goodwill and dissipate more bad feelings, than an antiseptic press release.


Delivering a message through the media when things go wrong though, can be tough. It is no wonder that some companies and organizations hide behind statements and press releases. But Ansell provides tips on how to prepare for an interview and offers talking points and suggestions that can help spokespeople build confidence and share a message clearly. He also denounces the use of saying “no comment” and notes how self-incriminating this remark can be.

While legal counsel may not always support this messaging approach, Ansell believes that if a company can express regret and empathy in the media after a tragedy, it can go a long way toward building goodwill. An empathetic and proactive approach through the news media can mitigate claims and reflect the human side of the company, rather than presenting a straitjacketed response from a crisis communications plan.

Early in my career, media training advice was to tell interviewees to “stay on point” even if they were not responding adequately to the question posed by a reporter. This serves to infuriate reporters and can often make it appear that a company or organization is “hiding” information even while speaking. The author soundly denounces this strategy and argues that core values can under gird the messages that the spokesperson delivers. Ansell gives advice on how to handle a hostile interview situation and persistent re-questioning by reporters.

I also really liked his section discussing messaging, that looked at how emotions win over facts and figures. Ansell counsels public relations professionals to understand the underlying emotions that impact consumer or target audience views. Facts cannot beat emotions – as much as public relations professionals love statistics, data and talking points. Spitting out pre-canned messages will not work if people do not trust you. Ansell rightly points out that trust must be earned by organizations. He advises spokespeople in difficult or crisis situations to show humility, answer honestly, acknowledge skepticism, and couple concern with a commitment to action.

You can follow author Jeff Ansell on Twitter @JeffAnsell.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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