Tell Your Truth Slowly

Article excerpt

There isn't a human service communications professional who has not described his or her job as more firefighting than anything else. Sometimes the fires are big--a child welfare program with missing children, Food Stamp error rates going through the roof, a Medicaid budget that is going to sink the state budget (not just your agency's budget, the entire state's budget).

Reporters and the public want answers, and they want them now--on the reporter's schedule. Now. I have been there hundreds of times and had to fight the urge to communicate immediately. That's when I try to remind myself ... "tell the truth slowly."

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Those four words of advice are not my own. You may recognize them. Mike McCurry used them to describe his job as press secretary for former President Bill Clinton. I use these words today to describe my job as the person responsible for communications policy at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

A firefighter who fights fires slowly? On the surface, this may seem a recipe for disaster. I argue that you will never fully extinguish a media fire if you fail to take the time to gather your facts, develop and test your messages, determine your spokesman, and then turn the fire hose of your words on the media.

In truth, I do not know with certainty that McCurry ever uttered the words, "tell the truth slowly." In my research, I found numerous published articles that attribute those words to McCurry. I can only guess what McCurry meant, but I can tell you what I like about his personal job description and why I like it.

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As everyone from Mike McCurry to Scott McClellan (President Bush's former press secretary) will tell you: dealing with the media can be tricky. That's why laying a good foundation for your media policy is critical.

First, "tell the truth" says it all. Truth is the foundational piece to a media communications policy. I am not talking about Stephen Colbert's "truthiness"--the use of prettified facts that tell a story that you wish were true. I am talking about the delivery of information that is accurate and can be proved.

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You can be strategic about how you tell the truth and how much of it you tell. You can and should package the truth in messages that not only respond to reporters' real or anticipated questions, but also respond to public fears or legislator misgivings. That's where the "slowly" part of McCurry's words comes into play. You can't be strategic if you hurry. You can't deliver good messages and verifiable information if you do not take the time to do so.

To ensure that good messages are delivered strategically, you need to have a media policy that bans shoot-from-the-lip responses to media inquiries and insists on teamwork and deliberation.

By using terms such as "slowly" and "deliberation," I do not mean to suggest that it is OK to take days to prepare for a media interview. Timely response is important when it comes to a media relations policy. It is even more critical in a crisis situation. Here are a few extracts from our media policy at Health and Welfare:

* "It is the policy of the department to respond as quickly as possible the same day to calls from the news media. As a public agency, the department must respond quickly even if a reporter or editor has called late in the day or has called someone who is unavailable or unqualified to respond." Note to CEOs: By policy, our lead communications officer is the only agency employee who can be required to provide their home phone number to media. …