We're all a little cranky these days. It's understandable. Kids are screaming in our ears while we're trying to work. We can't go to movies, bars or restaurants. People are postponing or cancelling weddings, graduations and other major life events. 

And that's those of us who are lucky. With thousands of our fellow citizens falling ill to COVID-19, it's hard not to feel guilty for succumbing to something as insignificant as a bad mood.

As you might expect, journalists are getting a little cranky, too. They've got a president in the Oval Office telling them all their COVID-19 coverage is "fake." They continue to get bombarded with email pitches from flacks; you know, pitches like this one Brook Barnes of the New York Times recently received, with the subject line, “Forget everything you’ve ever heard about latex."

No, the pitch from an L.A. publicist was not about protecting yourself with latex gloves. It read:

Latex has become an inescapable fashion sensation, with designers creating unique and innovative looks for both on and off the runway. But jumping straight into a full latex look may seem intimidating. So why not test the waters first with sexy & seductive latex lingerie? Our luxury lingerie line, Anya Lust, is the perfect place to find all your latex lingerie needs.

"What planet is this person living on?" Barnes wondered. And then he promptly wrote a scathing piece eviscerating said publicist and others like her.

To add to the crankiness factor, the economic uncertainties of COVID-19 are kicking the long-struggling media industry while it's down. According to the Times, more than 30,000 employees of news media companies in the United States have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of coronavirus.

Beware Crankiness Factor 10

Truth is, a lot of reporters these days are operating at Crankiness Factor 10 -- or CF10, as I call it. That's red alert status.

Do you know what happens when a reporter hits CF10? Sometimes at least, they will decide to take it out on you -- or perhaps your company's or client's CEO.

I mean, you don't think that insane level of backlash against Zoom was rational, do you?

To ease you through these uncertain times, I've prepared the perfect salve for you, my PR brethren.

A listicle.

As you prepare the big boss for that next high-stakes interview with the news media -- about COVID-19 or anything else -- here are seven warning signs that an enterprising reporter plans to take their cranky out on you.

  1. The journalist is vague about the story angle. Reporters don't call you unless they have a pretty good idea what they're going to write about. For example, they might want to profile you as a fast-growing company in your industry, they might want your take on a specific trend or controversy -- or they might want to grill you about something damaging they believe they've uncovered about you. If you ask them their angle and they mumble something that doesn't sound like a focused story idea, it might be because their real angle is that they think your CEO is a crook.
  2. The journalist has a history of hard-hitting reporting or pointed commentary. After being contacted by a reporter you don't know, the first thing you should do is Google them to see what kind of stuff they write. If you go through a half-dozen CEO profiles and find one coronation and five eviscerations, those probably approximate your odds.
  3. The media outlet typically does not have nice things to say about people like you. Be mindful of the slant of the publication. For example, alternative weeklies traditionally take an anti-business approach. Unless you're an upstart entrepreneur who is doing something disruptive to the status quo, this kind of outlet may not be for you. More and more mainstream media outlets are falling into political camps as well; if you're a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing carbon emissions or saving lab rats, don't go on Fox News unless you want your cause ridiculed before a national audience.
  4. A competing media outlet has just said something nice about you. Reporters hate getting beat on a story. They also hate doing the same story someone else just did. So if you've been the subject of some laudatory coverage, you're eventually going to meet up with a reporter who wants to knock you off your high horse. I think it's fair to say that this is at least one reason for the current pile-on on the erstwhile COVID-19 hero Zoom. Be prepared.
  5. The journalist is reluctant to tell you who else has been interviewed for the story. You can learn a lot by asking a reporter who else he or she has interviewed for the story. For example, if the reporter has prepared for the upcoming meeting with your CEO by talking to a bitter business rival or even-more-bitter ex-wife, you might be in for a bumpy ride. If a reporter hems and haws when you ask the question, that might be all the answer you need.
  6. The journalist is uncomfortable when asked his or her point of view. It's often useful to ask the reporter his or her point of view on a controversial issue. Many reporters share their perspectives freely when their opinions are neutral or in alignment with yours. When they think you're full of it, on the other hand, they tend to ramble on about objectivity and how the "story is about you, not me." If they start talking like that, you're probably toast.
  7. The journalist makes it apparent that he or she has already done ALL of the reporting for the story -- except for talking to your CEO. You're dead meat now. The reporter has lined up everything and just wants to fire away at you -- "I've discovered this document in your trash; I have the unexpurgated email thread; I've spoken to your mother-in-law; what's your response?" Duck and cover.
Even if you strongly suspect a journalist is planning to take their cranky out on you, that doesn't mean you should respond with a "no comment." In fact, you still need to provide the reporter with information and, in many cases, the CEO should go ahead with the interview.

But you'd better go into it ready -- focused for battle, talking points down cold, with both guns blazing. And record the conversation.