Viewpoint: When Engineers Meet the Media

Whether the headlines proclaim technology breakthroughs or failures, as an engineer you might be called upon to answer reporters’ questions. A media strategist who’s worked with engineers at NASA, Microsoft, and Lockheed Martin offers her perspective and advice.
close-up image of media reporter holding microphone and pen and paper

“When Engineers Meet the Media” was written by Tia Over, SWE.


It is probably safe to say that many of us would rather do almost anything than sit across the table from a reporter or stand behind a podium at a press conference. But that’s sometimes exactly where engineers find themselves.

When an organization is in the headlines for a big success, an operational mishap, or a product failure, reporters will want to hear from a technical expert. As an engineer, that may be you. Engineers are often called on for interviews and press conferences, and those who develop skills in media relations can be invaluable assets to a company or organization.

Nearly every day, you can find a headline where engineers are part of the story. A recent example is the Boeing 737 MAX. Fairly or not, criticism has been leveled at engineers over how the engine was built, and what engineers did or didn’t do in the development of pilot training.

But not all examples in the news are negative. We see coverage of engineering in stories on artificial intelligence advances, breakthroughs in medical research, and innovations such as low-cost smartphones and water-filtration systems that help people rise out of poverty. Many engineers also elevate to top leadership positions in large corporations or government agencies, where media skills are a must.

You’re an engineer. You exist to solve problems. That alone is a great message for reporters to hear. You are better positioned than anyone in your organization to explain these complex issues. Cultivating media-engagement skills and perspective will help build your confidence and boost your career.

CHOCOLATE OR VANILLA? FLAVORS OF MEDIA ENGAGEMENT

When it comes to media engagement, there are two flavors to choose from: proactive and reactive.

Proactive media engagement involves pitching reporters to cover your news. What’s nice about this flavor is you will have a heads-up from your public relations agency or in-house communications (comms) partner that the outreach is taking place, and you aren’t surprised when an interview request lands in your inbox. This is news your organization wants to get out, so it’s likely to be a positive interaction.

Reactive media engagement happens when a reporter has heard of something your company or you are doing, and they call for an interview. This can be positive, but it also has the possibility of going negative if someone has tipped them off about a vulnerability in a product, or when a tragedy occurs and you need to activate a crisis communications response. Reactive communications are often time sensitive and require a quick and strategic response.

JOURNALISTS — THEY’RE NOT THE ENEMY

Many have science degrees or technical backgrounds, and more have been reporting on science and engineering for a long time. They’re smart. Give them credit for that.

No matter their backgrounds, reporters are trained in getting up to speed on a topic quickly. It’s their superpower. A good reporter will be looking to you to help them do that and will ask questions designed to get a better understanding of the facts and how they piece together.

Like you, they are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. And most of them want your success as well; they aren’t all looking for gotcha scenarios. Reporters got into this business because they like to tell stories. Help them do that.

HOW DEEP DO YOU GO?

One of the biggest challenges engineers have is understanding how much technical depth to use when talking to a reporter.

Journalist Guy Raz of NPR hosts two of my favorite podcasts: TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. One of his most commonly asked questions of his subjects, many of whom have technical backgrounds, is: “What does that mean?” Reporters don’t typically want to know what the thing is composed of or how you built it. They want to know what it does — what meaning it brings to people’s lives.

Let the reporter lead you. A top-level answer is always good to start, and the reporter will ask follow-up questions to get to the appropriate technical depth.

The bottom line:

  • Build relationships with your comms folks, be they in-house or at an agency, before you need them. This mutual trust will be valuable when you’re under deadline stress and reacting to a crisis — or some exciting breaking news. Treat them as your partners, and they’ll have your back.
  • Get to know who’s interviewing you. Ask your comms partner for a backgrounder on the reporter that includes a bio, some recent clips of their writing, and anticipated questions. Ask comms for the opportunity to prep together on your goals for the interview and what key messages, or sound bites, you should be looking to land.
  • Learn to use RTQs — Response to queries (or questions). These are brief documents that lay out the most likely questions reporters will ask, and communicators use them to align the team on answers, and then to prep for the media engagement. Your communications colleague may ask you to help build or fact check RTQs. Take them up on it. And then use the RTQs to practice, practice, practice. (Pro tip: RTQs are also great to use in preparing for public speaking engagements, even job interviews.)
  • Ask for media training as part of your professional development. If there’s no budget for an outside trainer, your communications colleagues can surely help you and would likely welcome the opportunity.

By understanding the nature of the media request, seeking help from your comms partners, and following these best practices, you can step up to the podium with confidence.


A SWE member, Tia Over is partner at The Mathews Group, and for 18 years has advised business-minded engineers at Fortune 50 companies and government agencies, as well as clients in higher ed and nonprofit, on communications strategy. She delivered breakout sessions on technical presentation and media engagement best practices at the WE Local conferences in Portland and Denver. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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