Media Tips from a Veteran PAO

By Kim Renay Anderson

In the Public Affairs arena, it is no secret that it can be challenging at times to work with the media, especially during a crisis or “hot level” issue (and the media is having a field day crucifying your agency daily). As a former journalist, I understand the perspective/determination of reporters to get information for a news story on deadline as well as exposing “earth shattering” info that will get spotlight in the media (and a possible Emmy Award for news coverage or Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism).

Keeping in this mind, I offer my suggested tips as a journalist/veteran Public Affairs Officer (PAO) based on my extensive media crisis experience working in challenging crises like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 New England Floods, snowstorms, and many other Presidential Disaster Declarations. To this day I am quick to apply my tips to my everyday job duties, when needed.

Tip #1: Stay abreast of news, especially hot topics

Keep abreast of news related to your agency, particularly “hot topics” and verify with your agency the official statement about an issue/topic to provide to the media. In some cases, your agency may have designated a point of contact (POC) or spokesperson to exclusively respond to the media about a particularly “hot topic.”

Tip #2: Never say, “I don’t know”

Don’t respond with “I don’t know,” particularly when asked a question you do not have the answer to. For example, a “seat belt” question, or one that touches on a controversial or hot topic painting your agency as UGLY. This also includes questions asked “out of the blue” not related to a scheduled interviews.

Here are some better ways to respond:

  • Continue emphasizing the point you were trying to make. For example, “I am here today to emphasize/explain the importance of or clarifying …” Sometimes, if you are lucky, the media is “stirred away” from that “seatbelt” question. However, if a media outlet continuously pressures you for a response, then…
  • Amicably respond, “You know what, it sounds like you have a lot of questions about this topic, let me put you in touch with the person dealing “exclusively” with this issue. Make sure to respond to the media with, “What is your deadline?” Then give them the POC email address/phone and ask them to immediately send their inquiry to the POC with their deadline in the subject. Most importantly, ask this media outlet to “cc” you on the email. This shows your dedication to work with them to meet their story deadline, thus setting the foundation for fostering a good relationship with this media outlet. If the interview was live, then immediately follow-up calling the POC to inform him/her to expect a call from the media outlet, etc.
  • Most importantly, get the media outlet’s contact email and email them “on the spot” asking them to verify he/she got your email. This shows your sincerity to assisting them getting a story for the Noon; 5’ O’clock or feature story for morning newspaper versus avoiding/dodging a response and getting negative press. (i.e. “We reached out to [INSERT NAME OF YOUR AGENCY] but did not get a response.”
  • In the event a media outlet “demands” to speak directly speak with a director or with a particular person at an agency (and you know this is not possible), try suggesting they send you an email with questions and their deadline, and tell them “due to scheduling he or she might not be able to speak with you, but response may be sent via email.” The advantage of emailing a response is that it gives an agency time to coordinate an approved response with public affairs, the related program area, and legal.

Tip #3 Cultivate your media contacts

Be sure to give media outlets your business card, emphasizing to contact you anytime (email best) for any more inquiries and to always note their deadline. Don’t be surprised if in the future this media outlet contacts you to find out who to speak with about a topic at your agency totally not related to your area-this is good because 1) this indicates you have established/fostered a relationship with this media outlet and 2) if you ever have to pitch a news story in the future to the media, you can reach out to this news organization with more than likely a positive response and giving them the first opportunity for an exclusively interview. Remember that news outlets compete!

Tip #4 Know the media outlets that reach out to you

Be sure to research the media outlet and reporter! This is important because you just might find out the media outlet is “not legit” or even that your agency has flagged to “avoid” this reporter because of an incident, but unbeknownst to you this happened before you joined the agency.

The key takeaways are to make the media your friend rather than your enemy and to remember that small little newspaper or radio station could be connected someway to a bigger conglomerate or even the editor could have an relative on the Appropriations Committee or even a congressional member! (Seriously, I had this experience).