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The strongest recorded tornado in history had just plowed through my hometown of Moore, Oklahoma. I was helping the parents of some friends as they sifted through what was left of their home. A reporter from The Kansas City Star wanted to ask a few questions.

That was ironic, seeing as how I had worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and owner. Also, that weekend in May of 1999, I was supposed to receive my master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma.

Here I was, a reporter, being interviewed by a reporter. How should I answer? What should I say?

Here are a few tips for dealing with reporters.
1. Remember that you are not a public relations professional, unless you happen to be one. Don’t dive over your head. Reporters are trained to be pesky and downright persnippity, if necessary. Before you know it, you could embarrass yourself or your friends by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
2. Don’t be afraid. On the other hand, don’t be afraid. Hoards of reporters descended upon that tornado-ravaged area. Some were friendly and some were not. However, I told friends and neighbors of my friends that they did not have to speak to reporters if they did not want to speak with them. They owned the control. Take charge and don’t let them take advantage of you. Ask for their credentials. If they get rude, ask for the name and number of their editors. Often, reporters can be gentle, humorous and informative. Also, they can be helpful for you. So, while you don’t want to get in over your head, you don’t need to be afraid of the water.
3. Tell the truth. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s not to some folks. If you tell a reporter a lie, and the reporter gets other information to the contrary, you will look foolish when the lie is exposed in public. Reporters are trained to sniff out a smelly lie. Also, don’t embellish the truth. If you saw two robbers running away from the elderly lady, don’t say you saw four robbers.
4. Cover yourself. If you are uncertain the reporter will get the quote straight, record the conversation. Of course, be polite and let the reporter know you are recording. In some states, and across state lines, it is apparently a crime to record a phone conversation without the knowledge of both parties.

5. Follow up. Many people ask reporters to “send a copy of the story.” That is usually impractical for the reporter. However, you can get a copy yourself. Compare the story to what you said. Call the newspaper and complain if the information is not correct.

Again, the key is not being afraid, taking initiative in the relationship. Reporters can trip even seasoned professionals. However, you may find someone putting a microphone or tape recorder in your face. What are you going to say? Think, speak clearly, and be honest. You may well be a part of the news.