Make Friends With Journalists – Do’s & Don’ts For ETF Professionals

Congratulations. A journalist is coming to your office at 15.00 sharp and your boss wants you to be the face of the company. Are you ready?

It may be your first time for the Financial Times or the fourth time for a trade magazine. Either way, being front-facing with the press is a fantastic way for people in the ETF industry to hone their communication skills, build their personal brand as well as the brand of their employer or business.

If you are an independent commentator i.e. you are your own boss with no particular axe to grind, then some of the below tips may not be so strictly necessary. But whether you’re a novice or a pro with the hacks, there are always several do’s and don’ts in order to save you from, well, looking a bit silly.

  1. Make sure you’re ready

This sounds obvious, but a journalist will want to speak to a representative who is confident in their profession, an expert in their field and maybe even a good source of general industry knowledge. If you’re going to explain how an ETF trades on the stock exchange but you wish you’d spent an hour consolidating the basics first, push back the interview. In other words, don’t wing it. It will look bad if the journalist is more prepared than you are.

Also, ask for a briefing on who is coming to interview you, or look up the person yourself, if you have never met them. The more you know about their background, the more it puts you on an equal footing from the off. Oh, and treat the interview like any other meeting. That means being on time, getting their name and being polite, thank you very much.

     2. If you mess up, be honest

Frightened yet?

Sorry. I’ll be nicer. We all make mistakes, journalists included, and we all, from time to time, say something we shouldn’t or phrase something in the wrong manner. There’s no shame in ‘fessing up, apologizing, and asking if you can answer a question again, or re-phrase something you didn’t get quite right the first time round. The journalist is trying to her / his job to the best or their ability, just as you are. It is not in their interest if they don’t report the truth of the story, i.e. what you want to convey.

     3. Be clear on the terms of the meeting

It’s almost 15.00; time to make sure you have the biscuits ready. But wait – are you clear on the terms of the meeting?

There are several options. Are you speaking on the record (everything you say can be quoted)? Are you off the record (nothing can be attributed to you)? Are you ‘on background’ (nothing can be quoted, even anonymously, and could only be used for context and attributed to ‘sources’)? Even these definitions are not black and white, and people will interpret them differently. So make sure the terms are straight.

If, say, a journalist is keen to discuss your company’s next batch of smart beta ETFs, they will feel like they might have wasted their time if they expected to write up a Q&A and you only wanted to go ‘on background’. Similarly, they might be rather hacked off if you expect them to write up a Q&A and they were just hoping for a coffee and a gossip.

Make sure all this is clear in advance. It’s much more difficult to backtrack after the interview, and at that point, a journalist is free to stick to the original terms and print that thing you really didn’t want to say.

     4. Frame everything in a positive light (if you are not your own boss)

ETF professionals can be just as evasive and blindingly optimistic as politicians. If your boss is sending you onto the battlefield and expects you to come back unscathed, then you will need to learn the art of spin.

If fourth quarter growth looks weak, provide a context of how difficult market conditions have been for everyone, including competitors. If the new product launch has only seeded $10 million, it is still an exceptional fundraiser for such a niche fund and you are confident it will attract more capital. If the regulators decide to scrutinize security lending processes by ETF providers, then you are delighted – after all, more transparency and more regulation is good for everyone. It’s amazing how quickly you will become a glass half-full person.

     5. Don’t lie or make things up

Another obvious point but one that people frequently trip up over. Be prepared, but if you don’t know the answer, admit that and tell the interviewer that you will get back to them with the correct facts / figures asap. See ‘not looking silly’ above.

     6. Bring a third party

Ideally, make sure a PR representative is present, at least until you feel really confident and well-versed in company media policy. Journalists have been taught to ignore PRs and not consult them for much more than co-ordinating diaries or making small talk, but the PR can act as a useful intermediary in tricky situations, sparing you from doing the dirty yourself. For example, the PR will tell the journalist subjects you are not permitted to discuss, break off the interview if it spills over and will provide the follow-up to check they have everything they need.

     7. Treat the journalist as your friend

The ETF world is a very small one, despite the actual ETF market enjoying phenomenal growth. That means if you burn your bridges with a certain journalist or publication, you will suffer the pain of frequent, awkward reunions. Invest in your relationships with the press as you do with your colleagues, unless you want to spend the next decade of industry dinners hiding behind your glass of sauvignon blanc.

     8. Women, push yourselves to be interviewed

Unfortunately, there is still a gender imbalance when it comes to the ETF market and those voices of authority who meet the press, speak at conferences, collect awards and enjoy general recognition. While there are many women journalists, there are fewer women being interviewed across the table. It would be wise to push yourself forward, creating an easier path to publicity for the women behind you, and would be a nice change for the hack.

     9. Don’t give them numbers

Whilst you are a human – not a robot – and you can answer questions freely – not read from a script – try to avoid giving out concrete numbers, projections or estimates. For one, it sets the bar high and if those numbers don’t match up in six months’ time, prepare for a tough question or even a negative headline.

Similarly, avoid specific dates. ‘We’re going to launch the fund on 10 June’ might come back to bite you in the behind.

     10. Remember journalists are always looking for a story

Members of the media want to find something new, interesting and relevant to report for their readers. You can talk until your face is blue but that doesn’t mean you can ‘sell’ a journalist a story. Their eyes will also glaze over if you resort to giving them a lecture or that 20-page PowerPoint presentation you normally dust off every year for clients.

     11. Be quick to respond

Journalists work to tight deadlines, whereas you might work around longer projects. Be cognisant that a journalist often requires a quick response otherwise he / she will have to write something along the lines of ‘X could not be immediately reached for comment’.

The plus for your career is that if you are quick and reliable, you will become a go-to for journalists writing stories, even if they are not directly about you or your employer. Before you know it, you have become a voice of authority for all things ETF related.

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