Reporters and Press Officials Are People Too, and other FCN Takeaways for Fostering Media Relations

On February 25, 2020, Dr. David Kosub, Ph.D. attended a FCN media panel event which focused on best practices to build  relationships between government public affairs officers and reporters.  This blog is a reflection of some of the lessons he learned during the session. 

I’ve spent years interacting with members of the Fourth Estate and I still enjoy learning more about how reporters work, think, and approach stories. It is helpful to understand and know their processes so I can better address their questions as well as advocate for them to accurately publish messaging about my  agency’s mission. During a recent Federal Communicators Network, I gained additional insights from  the reporters and some agency press officials on the panel.  recording:   

Members of the reporter panel shared their ideas, working processes and tips to engage them. The panel included  perspectives from Jason Miller, Jessie Bur, Tom Shoop, and Lia Russell with Federal News Network, Federal Times, Government Executive Media Group, and Federal Computer Week, respectively. For example, the group discussed their views about government policies, programs, and people as well as transitions in government operations.  They also noted that effective change takes place when a strong foundation for building and maintaining strategic relationships exist.  FCN hosts media panel discussion regarding best practice collaborations between communicators and reporters

In addition, some reporters make it a priority to collaborate with their government media relations contacts so they can publish accurate, complete and  authentic stories. So how does this happen? As communicators, we can take a few proactive steps such as:

  • Practice the art of an engaging pitch
  • Give a head’s up that something newsworthy is about to happens
  • Share timelines or embargoed materials
  • Facilitate communications and interactions to collect all pertinent facts up front
  • Explain our internal media relations clearance processes
  • Be honest in responses to media inquiries. 

Once we implement these tips, it makes things like interviewing experts unfold organically and help to foster an authentic conversation on both sides.

It is also important to understand how things work from the government media relations team perspective. Jim Billimoria, SBA and Matthew Sheehey, Peace Corp suggested that press officials strive to be more accessible and reasonable with their story submission requests. In addition, when media officers see a published mistake, they can make the incident a learning opportunity by connecting with reporters and educating them on the topic. Taking this type of tactic instead of a defensive one helps to build trust with our media partners. 

Moreover, it was interesting to hear that some reporters may experience challenges getting agencies to share their success stories. It maybe the result of some legacy practices of simply responding to media requests instead of proactively submitting informational update or agency accomplishment stories.  When this occurs, it helps to use a bit of dual perspective by thinking about what the reporters knows, needs and wants to publish so we can be better positioned partner with them especially on deadline.

The art of developing an effective pitch requires knowing your overall communications goals. Are you planning to educate, engage, inform or a combination of these goals? This will also help you avoid blind spots and prepare your principles for the potential outlier interview questions. One thing to consider is to make sure your agency’s digital content is current with the latest updates to press release, program information and social media posts. That way federal communicators can pitch a story that also has online resources tailored to the media’s additional informational needs. Also, adding compelling visuals and video snippets with tangible facts helps to frame a complete story for all target audiences.  

Finally, I enjoyed listening to other federal communicators discuss their approach to handling sensitive issues like a crisis or an emergency response. This includes providing responses such as “we are unable to comment at this time” to providing cleared messaging for public consumption. When we develop strategic communications plans that outline ways to effectively communicate to high priority topics, it makes the interaction with the press easier. For example, develop sample messaging based on real world situations your agency experienced and secure leadership approval to use it a template for potential future issues. In addition, giving media contacts advance notice about breaking news and sharing the media advisory helps build good will with the press. 

These simple tips help foster more professional media relationships and enhance communications with the public we serve. I strongly believe that the more effective collaborations between reporters and feds will result in sharing more relevant information.

About the author:

David Kosub, Ph.D. is an immunologist turned communicator at NIH. He lives for translating wonky, arcane, and confusing government speak into knowledgeable information meant for public consumption. When not developing materials for the press, legislators, scientists, and administrators, you can either find him running a marathon somewhere around the world or writing a post on some hot button community issue on the neighborhood blog.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the author’s employer or Federal Communicators Network.