As general counsel of the National Religious Broadcasters, Craig Parshall is using more than legal skills to advocate on behalf of the nonprofit organization. From giving media interviews on controversial issues to writing blog posts about potential public relation disasters for NRB’s goals, Parshall says he is accessing “the court of public opinion” to articulate his group’s mission.
The GC shared four tips with CorpCounsel.com on how to successfully interact with the media to further an organization or corporation’s interests.
1. Engage in the conversation
Whether through newer media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, digital magazine articles sent directly to their constituents, or blog posts placed on relevant sites, Parshall suggests that it is imperative to find ways to get involved in the issues on behalf of your organization. He recently weighed in about a controversial new reality TV program with a contributed blog post on Christianpost.com. Using concrete examples that explain complex legal issues in simple terms, Parshall advocates for the NRB using his own voice.
An important step in this process is to “get educated on the varieties of new media available,” he says. Parshall recommends the seminars put on by state bar associations as particularly good sources for understanding the tools an organization can use. Lawyers “can’t afford to ignore the opportunities for instant communication,” he says.
2. Understand the journalist’s point of view
Parshall says it’s critical to understand some of the problems and issues facing journalists today. They’re “not always looking to undermine your position,” he notes, but instead they’re trying to find out where and what the story is. In law school you learn how to identify the legal issue, he explains, but when speaking with the press, it’s important to “help frame the broader cultural, policy, and social aspects of the issue as well,” he says.
It’s also critical for in-house counsel “to understand the environment that journalists live in now,” Parshall says. “Print newspapers are disappearing, media folks are trying to figure out how to make a living and survive.” Having a little empathy for the journalist can go a long way for a company.
3. Talk to the media—but not always
During the recent speculation around the Internal Revenue Service and its alleged over-scrutiny of conservative nonprofit groups, Parshall was asked by many media outlets to weigh in on the issue. He wrote a blog post on the topic and did a number of media interviews, but he didn’t accept all requests that came his way. “Do homework and be choosy about venues that you go into,” he says, explaining that the old adage “ink is ink” doesn’t apply in this age of instant communication.
“You have to carefully decide the appropriateness of the venue, or at least know the credibility of the people,” he says, before accepting an interview. Do your research: “Once the camera is rolling, you can find out you’re facing questions that were not part of the protocol.”
4. No comment—At Least Not Right Now
The “no comment” comment can be “nuanced,” explains Parshall. “If you represent a nonprofit like I do, and you know there’s a controversial issue and you know you’re not prepared for whatever reason to comment specifically on the question,” he suggests leaving “the door open, rather than simply saying ‘We can’t comment.’ ”
Instead, telling a reporter, “I don’t have an answer to your question now, but I’d like to be able to provide one to you in the future if we’re in the position to do so,” opens the lines of communication—and keeps them open. As long as you don’t abuse this approach, “journalists will respect it,” Parshall says. Asking for questions ahead of the interview or insisting the interview be done over email can also help focus your organization’s response to sensitive topics.
“The average [in-house] practitioner out there usually doesn’t think that he’s going to be facing intense national media scrutiny unless something terribly bad happens,” says Parshall. But, he notes that the Internet’s voracious need for information requires an organization’s representatives to rethink that relationship with the media. “You have to be prepared, in a winsome and articulate and non-defensive way, to be able to interact with the media.”