Effective Media Relations
Media relations, like other business-based relationships, are most effective when they are rooted in strategic “empathy,” by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and having a plan for what you’re going to do while you’re standing there.
Strategy comes first
The strategic part of the formula is up to you. Before thinking about picking up the phone to call a reporter or issue a news release, you need to have a communication plan in place. Even for a relatively small event, project, or program, you should set desired communication objectives, identify your key audiences, develop your key messages, and decide how best to deliver those messages to key audiences.
Your job is to convey information through the media who provide information to the people you care about and serve. Hold up your end of the implicit bargain when you accept a news interview. Your messages need to be succinct, timely, accurate, and, as much as possible, interesting and meaningful. In other words, you need to clearly deliver informational sound bites. Practice sound bites out loud. This can help prepare you to deliver your message when the red light comes on.
Be aware of barriers to communication, including distractions, limitations, and biases a reporter or stakeholder may have in processing the information you’re providing. It is a good idea to think about ways to overcome those barriers. If the reporter is new to the market, maybe providing a fact sheet or newsletter relevant to the topic can give him or her factual information to work from. Or perhaps their assignment editor has sent the reporter out in search of a “sweeps” story—something that can be marketed to draw eyeballs when ratings are being measured. Is there an angle with extra zing that you could offer to help the reporter?
Ideally this planning phase is done proactively, with plenty of lead time to get prepared. Sometimes situations come up so quickly that you’ll find yourself in a reactive mode but even the most rudimentary planning will give you focus when inevitably you do find yourself in front of a TV camera.
Build a relationship
When it comes to creating a relationship with reporters, ask yourself what you might be expecting from the relationship? If you have no expectations, or fear the worst, you probably won’t develop a working relationship. Also, if you think a reporter wants to be your pal and gloss over controversial issues, better think again.
Most media relationships are professional and built on trust. Reporters (and editors and photographers) have a job to do, just like you. Believe it or not, many journalists hold themselves to a code of ethics. However, lines have become blurred with the advent of “citizen journalists” and bloggers, so it’s wise to know who you’re talking to and if they’re representing a known news organization.
Establishing two-way trust does take time and commitment. While I never recommend going “off the record,” you may want to share a bit of behind-the-scenes background. Help the reporter by providing hooks and angles. Most reporters are trying to tell interesting stories that will capture their readers’ or viewers’ attention. Stories about people provide greater interest than stories about plans and programs. Interesting images and “gee whiz” facts help sell a story.
Understand the reporter’s working environment. If you’ve ever been in a newsroom when a print or broadcast deadline is nearing, you’ll understand why most reporters won’t even pick up the phone, much less have a chat with you at 4:30pm.
At this point, let’s say that you have a strategic communication plan and you’ve developed a working relationship with a reporter. In other words, you know what you want to say, and you know who you’re talking to. Now you have to put it together in a formal interview.
Anticipate the questions of: who, what, where, when, why, and how much. Many public works officials don’t like that last question. It’s complicated, it may be controversial, and it’s probably not on your short list of key messages. Despite these legitimate concerns, I encourage you to consider answering cost questions to the best of your ability. Generally, it is public money that’s involved, and it’s also part of that two-way trust dynamic—in other words, “You can trust me to give you factual information, and I can trust that you will use that information fairly and accurately.”
There are also questions that you should be asking of the reporter at this point of an interview. Who else will the reporter interview? How much does the reporter know about the interview topic? How long will the interview take? Where’s the interview location? When will the interview run?
When you are answering interview questions, keep answers simple, but not condescending.
- Use key messages
- Avoid jargon.
- Give most important facts first.
This is called the inverted pyramid, where interest and attention start strong and quickly fade.
When interacting in face-to-face interviews, remember cameras and microphones are always on, so stay energized and on guard. Talk to your audience through the news media, and watch your body language.
For telephone interviews, don’t take an interview call “cold.” Ask a few questions. Give a specific time for you to return the call. Hang up…collect your thoughts…call back. Think about sound quality, especially if you’re using a speaker phone or cell phone. Consider standing up while on a phone interview—it can help keep you from slipping into a casual conversation.
Handling tough interviews
Sometimes relationships with the media will be tested, not only because you may not have had as much time to prepare as you’d like, but also because the story is not positive. In these situations, the agency’s reputation is on the line, and even if you have developed excellent relationships with reporters, the interviews can be tough. Candor, confidence, consistency, and control can help get you through these difficult interactions with the press.
The first rule of candor is to always tell the truth. Use easy-to-understand language. If you don’t know, it’s okay to say so. Never go “off the record,” and don’t guess about other people’s motives.
Remember to have confidence in knowing you’re the expert and you have the information people need. You’ve thought about your key messages and you’re ready to put them to good use. You care about the people you serve, and the media helps you speak to those people.
To ensure consistency in tough interviews, stick with key messages. Pick a spokesperson and stay with that person.
It is helpful to establish control in tough interviews, by repeating and transitioning to key messages. Take your time answering, and don’t give spontaneous, poorly thought-out responses. Control your physical space if the reporter or photographer tries to crowd you, and look at the reporter while not playing to the camera.
When on camera, it’s helpful to think about the background of the shot, which might include job safety. Express confidence and professionalism in your posture, and be as relaxed as possible.
Sometimes you need to say “no” to an interview. Be prepared to say why; your refusal may be the news story. If you’re not the right person to be interviewed, try to help the reporter by finding a better choice.
Finally, you can protect yourself and your organization, by making notes or tape record interviews to refer back to if needed. When doing radio or TV interviews over the phone, ask whether the information is being broadcast live or taped. For the reporters with whom a professional relationship based on trust has not been established, consider replying in writing to a set of written questions. Always correct errors—don’t let them become “facts.”
Eric Jones is Public Affairs Manager for the City of Eugene (Oregon) Public Works Department. Prior to working for the City of Eugene, Jones worked for 10 years as a reporter and editor for a local newspaper. He chairs the e-Communications Committee for the APWA Oregon Chapter. You can contact him at email@example.com