There's a reporter on the phone...

- September 9, 2005

If the media are running a story on Canadian politics there«s a good chance Dalhousie«s Jennifer Smith will be a part of it. Dr. Smith is Chair of Dal«s Political Science department and an expert on Canadian politics. She is one of the most requested Dalhousie experts by media. She cites age and experience, and being prepared to do her homework for an interview as some of the reasons she is so sought after by journalists.

"I took my first interview in 1980," she says. "I have worked with all types of media, public and private. I know what the media try to do; what pressures media people face; and what they expect of me."

Advice for Experts - Tips on dealing with the media
Have you ever been called out of the blue by a reporter? Not sure how to respond, or even if you should? The following are a few quick tips on responding to media requests:
  • If the media are looking for "expert" commentary that falls within your field of expertise and you are comfortable talking about the subject, go ahead and do the interview. If you have the knowledge but would like advice on dealing with reporters, contact Media Relations Manager Charles Crosby (1269) for advice and assistance. Charles also provides individual media training for faculty members.
  • If you are not the appropriate person to comment on the subject, send the reporter to Charles Crosby, who will track down the right person to conduct the interview.
  • Don«t feel you have to do the media call cold. Ask the reporter about the angle of the story, and what general information they will need from you. Ask what type of interview it will be (phone interview, videotaped, live, etc.). Keeping the reporter«s deadline in mind, arrange to call back in ten minutes, or when you have 15 to 20 minutes of uninterrupted time.
  • Prepare for the interview by gathering together any notes or documentation you may need. Reporters often need to absorb complex topics in very little time, so try to jot down two or three "key message" that you feel are the most important messages to get across about the subject.
  • Relax and do the interview. Don«t feel the need to comment on subjects that are outside of your expertise, or on things about which you are not completely sure. It is okay to offer to get back to the reporter later with factual information if you don«t have it immediately at hand.
  • Contact Charles Crosby to let him know about the interview, and so that he can track any media coverage and forward to you.

She is responsive to media calls when she feels she can add value to a story. She works with media, taking into account their always-tight deadlines. She says she enjoys working with the reporters who seek her input. "Usually they are bright, interesting and fun to work with," she says. "The downside is the rush. Media often call at the last minute. There is often little time for "prep" work and to think carefully about what needs to be said. (But) if I can accommodate the media«s schedule, and have something to say on the topic, then I agree to do the interview. As well, if unavailable myself, I suggest names of other qualified individuals who can do the interview."

Dr. Smith sees value in nurturing a relationship with media and in being visible. Though she points out that, quite rightly, it is not a factor in tenure and promotion, she notes that media work can enhance an individual«s visibility and open up opportunities that might otherwise have remained closed.

While working with media can be a genuine plus for faculty there are sometimes less thrilling moments. Smith reflects back to a radio interview with Peter Gzowski during the debate over the Meech Lake Accord as one of her more memorable moments, and not for the better. "There were four or five of us dotted about the country, and linked with him in the interview. We were divided pro and anti in a debate over the "distinct society" clause, one of the anti-Meechers skilfully got me to elaborate his points rather than mine. It was a hard lesson to learn in public and I never forgot it. So it was memorable!"

Dr. Smith has clearly been an asset to the media as well as to Dalhousie by helping ensure the university is seen as a place where the experts work. She recommends others consider working with media directly. Her advice to other faculty is to listen to radio interviews and watch television interviews from the standpoint of someone interested in being that interview subject. "They should try to figure out what they like in an interviewee, and what puts them off, and act accordingly," she says. "Further, succinctness is extremely important. It is essential to know how to phrase a point simply and clearly. Very few people can do it."

With possible federal and provincial elections in the offing, Jennifer Smith will likely again be coming to a television, radio or newspaper near you. She continues to lead the way on offering expert commentary to media and shows us how to get the most out of those opportunities.

(Communications and Marketing offers a searchable database of experts at Dal who have agreed to provide informed commentary and context to current events. For information on how to become a "Dal expert" please visit


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