By Shayne L. Martin
Leading media relations for members of Congress is a daily grind where I learned a great deal about doing it right, and sometimes doing it wrong. Media relations presents a unique circumstance that is much different that interacting with the general public, federal agencies, or elected officials. Many reporters have a special code of ethics which sets them apart and demands thoughtful consideration and planning. With a transition to the Executive branch, many “lessons learned” from the high-pressure environment of the Hill translate, with some exceptions. In this blog, I will provide some basic tips and guidelines. While each interaction with a reporter is unique, each situation may vary.
The most important part of media relations is right in the name: relations. You build relationships through reliability and responsiveness, and the point of a good relationship is trust.
Reliability + Responsiveness = Trust
The relationships you build with them should garner trust. If a reporter trusts you, they are more than likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, reach back out to you for comment or give you extra time to respond. Trust means they believe you will give them a fair response, and will make your media relations more effective over time.
Reporters work on tight deadlines and don’t have much time to waste. This means you need to be responsive, even if you don’t provide immediate answers to their questions. Confirming receipt of a media inquiry, answering your phone, and managing expectations on what you can and cannot say and how long it may take for you to help them will go a long way.
While this concept may seem basic, it can be difficult in federal agencies to accomplish. A big difference between being a press secretary and a federal employee is longer approval times. While you wait for approval, think creatively about how to respond and manage reporter’s expectations even if you can’t provide a statement or go on record. Basic communication products like one page program overviews, facts and figures, and mission statements contain enough language for at least a basic statement to avoid the scary “could not be reached for comment” attribution.
Being responsive, means responding in minutes, not hours, just to be clear. However, you should take the time to be prepared when responding. Navigating a press call or email can be tricky, here are some tips:
- Know the levels of attribution and how to use them. Assuming everyone knows the four basic levels of attribution (on record, on background, on deep background, off the record) Being able to provide an on record statement and off the record information in the same conversation is good skill to have.
- Do not say “no comment.” This is widely known, but I like to add, don’t say you can comment to do some generic term like “privacy concerns.” Readers won’t know whose privacy you’re speaking to. Instead be more specific as to why you cannot comment such as a federal law, or policy that requires agencies respect the privacy of individuals.
- Be as helpful to reporters as you can. If you can’t provide a statement, help them do their research. Many media inquiries to federal agencies can be answered based on public data or websites.
- Don’t be hostile or condescending. They are trying to do their jobs and it’s an important one. And being hostile does not help you build relationships.
- Avoid expressing gratitude for their writing. Most reporters take pride in their work, and excessive thanks can imply that they aren’t being balanced in their writing.
- Don’t overreact to negative press. Reporters won’t always get it right, and being overly mean or cutting them off doesn’t help you in the long run.
Only half of media relations is answering the phone or email. Your organizations should have a proactive media relations strategy and guidance for staff to be successful.
Start with a general idea of what your organization’s priorities are. Previously approved statements and website materials are a good. Combined that with a good sense of what is newsworthy will give you the tools to identify low-risk and high reward activities to proactively pitch members of the media on interesting stories.
At the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, we have a mission to transform federal financial management and the delivery of shared services. We also have an office dedicated to providing transformative technology and process improvement across the government to accomplish this mission. Innovation in government is almost always a low-risk high reward pitch that is newsworthy because it goes against common perceptions of antiquated government. Once again, building a working relationship with newsworthy parts of your organization likely will result in you having enough time to proactively plan for media relations surrounding operational activities.
But let’s be frank, if you find yourself working for an organization that takes its time to get a statement approved, you’re likely feeling severely handcuffed in your media relations outreach.
If this is your situation, your first task should be to reach an agreement between those answering reporters and those approving statements. Ideally, anyone working in media relations should be able to provide an initial statement without the need for any approval. But if that’s not the case – you have to work to get this flexibility. Any agreement should be as formal as possible, to include a memorandum of agreement, approved media relations plan, or an email approval which allows for media relations professionals to do what they are hired to do, without having to ask permission. No amount of planning, training, practice can overcome an approval processes which takes longer than meeting a reporter’s deadline – that is unless you are a time traveler.
Media relations is important and can affect the reputation of your organization. It can drive whether or not positive or negative news stories influence the narrative surrounding your organization. Planning and flexibility to build trust with key reporters should be a top priority. I don’t think I have to sell an audience of communicators on the importance of your organization reputation, so I hope these tips make your job a bit easier.
Shayne Martin previously served as Press Secretary for Congressman Tom Latham of Iowa and Communications Director for Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas. He’s serves as Director of External Affairs for the Section 809 Panel and currently serves on the external media team as a spokesperson for the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, U.S. Department of the Treasury.