Advice on the Record: Tips for CSOs Interacting with Journalists
Do you want to increase your influence in your organization, your industry, and the public at large? This is an admirable and worthwhile pursuit, but beware—you will inevitably brush up against members of the media.
This can be tricky territory for security leaders to navigate, as historically security has operated behind the scenes, interacting with journalists primarily when something went awry. However, knowing how to work with all forms of communicators can benefit CSOs, whether they pursue a media spotlight or not.
In a panel at the 2023 CSO Secure Horizons event at GSX, communication specialists from ASIS International joined a panel to discuss how to interact with the media, how to find resources, and what pitfalls to avoid.
Andy Cutler, vice president of communications at ASIS, recommends making inroads with your internal communications counterparts year-round (not just during crisis response planning). “CSOs can educate communications professionals within their own organization on key security initiatives, programming, and innovations—adding value to that relationship,” Cutler says. Those tidbits of information come in handy for communications teams, which are often on the lookout for good news angles to share internally or to feed to outside journalists for PR purposes.
CSOs should also be prepared when speaking with those outside journalists. Set ground rules ahead of time, including whether you will be able to conduct a quote- or fact-check ahead of publication (reputable sources of journalism will rarely allow a “first read,” or pre-publication review of the full article), whether another company representative will be in the room during the interview (loop in legal and/or communications partners as needed), and what the specific topics the interview will cover.
If the interview goes off-topic, feel free to gently interrupt and bring it back to the agreed-upon subject. This is unlikely to be a “gotcha” attempt by the journalist—interviews, like conversations, often flow from one topic to another based on connections made in the moment—so if it’s relevant and of-interest, offer to address it with the journalist at a later date, once you’ve had time to review the topic and get buy-in from legal or communications for the additional participation.
Also avoid being wrongfooted about an incident, major report, or growing trend by keeping up with your newsfeeds before an interview. “CSOs should be active readers of news and information related to their industry as well as the security profession as a whole,” Cutler says. “Leveraging such tools as Google News alerts, Security Management, and subject area newsletters (e.g., AI Weekly) helps CSOs and their teams keep up with the latest trends and insights.”
To know what you’re getting into, be sure to read some of the journalist’s own writing—preferably before agreeing to an interview. This gives you a sense of their style, their interests, and whether they take a friendly or adversarial tone toward security, business, or technology, among other topics. Also, Cutler says, it often earns bonus points with the journalist to mention something that they wrote previously. (Editor’s note from the journalist writing this: He’s very right. We love to know someone read and remembered our work.)
During the interview—as well as during any interactions with journalists overall—always assume that you’re on the record unless you and the journalist have agreed otherwise. If you do not want your conversation to be on the record, you must clarify the terms of the interview ahead of time, not after you’ve said something you second-guess. Here are the general rules, as outlined in the New York University Journalism Handbook for Students:
On the record. Anything you tell the journalist can be quoted and attributed to you. This is the default condition when speaking with members of the media.
On background. Journalists can use what you tell them but without using your name. This is useful in cases with some sensitive information or when you do not want the comments connected with you or your company. Most journalists will use this type of information to inform their reporting approach and verify the information with other sources.
Not for attribution. The reporter agrees not to identify a source by name, instead referencing only the source’s job of position. Government sources use this method regularly to make a broad statement on behalf of a nation, department, or office rather than an individual, especially when the head of that office is unavailable. For example, a journalist might attribute a quote about a legal case to “a high-ranking official in the Justice Department.”
On guidance. Under this term, the source provides the journalist with information that can provide a roadmap for future independent reporting, but the information cannot be attributed to the source and the article should not acknowledge the source’s existence.
Off the record. The reporter is restricted from using the information the source delivers. Use an off-the-record conversation to explain a reporter’s understanding of a particular issue or event, and not to share a funny or salacious story about a security issue gone awry. Your use of this restriction should be used to deepen the journalist’s knowledge base—for which most journalists are grateful—not cover your backside. Even if you say, “this is off the record,” if the journalist doesn’t agree (or doesn’t follow a personal code of ethics), they might still print it. And no journalist is obligated to honor your take-back if you try to strike a phrase from the record after you said it. If you wouldn’t want your mother—or your legal team—to read it, don’t say it.
One exception to the no-take-backs rule, though, is for factual inaccuracies. If after an interview you find that something you said was inaccurate or could have been misconstrued, contact the journalist and correct the record. Reputable journalists want to avoid inaccuracies and will gratefully accept the correction pre-publication.
Another factor to consider is where the interview is taking place. Journalists typically prefer to conduct interviews in person, but that’s not feasible in many cases today. Phone interviews are common, but in the age of remote work and Zoom, CSOs should prepare to step onto the video screen.
“What used to be a phone call is now a video,” says Teresa Anderson, vice president of content for ASIS and editor-in-chief for Security Management. “Increasingly, video is a key form of communication in all types of media, and security professionals should be prepared to be on camera. This can include steps ranging from formal training to ensuring that a TV-ready outfit is always to hand. Know what color to wear, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about the process before the call or video interview begins. This includes knowing where to look, how much time is allotted for the interview, and where the interview will be used.”
Before you join the call, test your Wi-Fi connection, microphone, lighting, and other tech. Ask a trusted helper (family member, friend, colleague) to critique your background—does it tell the viewer something meaningful about you (a shelf of leadership books, military challenge coins, or family photos)? Or does it undercut your personal brand as a professional and subject matter expert (a pile of unfolded laundry behind you)?
The audio medium is also growing, with new podcasts, video series, and more cropping up every day. But just like with traditional interviews, be careful what you commit to, Anderson says.
“Podcasts are also continuing to gain popularity and, with a low barrier to entry, nontraditional outlets are launching podcasts,” she says. “Be sure you know the type of podcast you are participating in. Listen to several episodes. If the podcast is unprofessional, unpolished, or has a controversial host, it is perfectly acceptable to decline the invitation. Though it may be tempting to wing it, be sure you are familiar with the topic and have a broad outline of talking points. Just like on video, speaking clearly and concisely is key.”
There are thousands of journalists and industry outlets interested in hearing from security leaders, so if you want to start building your outward-facing brand, there are opportunities aplenty. It just depends on your personal risk tolerance when it comes to putting your name—and face—into the spotlight. Consider starting with being interviewed for an article by a security industry trade publication, from Security Management to Canadian Security or the International Security Journal. These publications often also accept contributed content, which enables you to write and control the narrative of your submission a bit more. You can also pursue a more casual, personal brand by participating in industry blogs, such as the ASIS International blog.
And remember—you’re likely not the only security expert at your organization; sharing outreach opportunities can help your team develop influence and a brand as well.
“CSOs can also let their subordinates know about chances to speak at conferences, get interviewed for trade magazines, or express their opinions on blogs related to their business, among other things,” Cutler says. “Senior managers are essential to their staff members’ professional growth.”
Claire Meyer is managing editor of Security Management and also participated in this CSO Secure Horizons panel in September 2023. Connect with her on LinkedIn or email her directly at [email protected].