It's All about Relationship
Sellers, Jim, Policy & Practice
One of the best stories from the annals of American journalism delivers a lesson for anyone who administers human services programs. On Sept. 23, 1955, news that President Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack was withheld for almost 12 hours, causing news reporters even in that cozier era to seethe with suspicion.
The challenge was met by Press Secretary Jim Hagerty, a former New York Times reporter, who subsequently showered reporters with an avalanche of detail. It ranged from what Ike was eating and when he slept to the color of his pajamas and décor of his hospital room to the birthday gifts that his grandchildren were giving him.
It's an old story with modern lessons: If you have news, either good or bad, get it out. And if you earn a reputation for candor, your life with journalists will be a whole lot happier.
In our business, we talk a lot about "collaborating with our partners," but journalists too rarely are counted among those essential partners.
They should be. More often than not, it is journalists from whom opinion leaders, lawmakers and, on some days, even governors get most of their information about us. So they're good people to have working with us, even if by that we mean only that they have prompt access to accurate information.
Years ago, a flier advertised a highpriced media-relations workshop in Chicago. "Help reporters do their jobs," the flier's headline said, "and they will help you do yours."
That's about all you need to know.
Begin by giving your communication/public affairs staffers access to all the information they need, giving them your time, sharing documents and providing access to meetings. The chief writer for a New York bank who admitted he and his staff had little access said, "We get the facts all right... and the nuances all wrong."
Your communications staff should be not only writing news releases and responding to reporters, but also advising you; they can do that well only if they know what's going on.
But, you might counter, you don't have the time. Then be creative. If you don't have time to sit down with communications staffers in the office, talk to them on the car phone-preferably hands free-while driving.
Give reporters access, too. If you aren't spending an average of at least 30 minutes a week talking with reporters, or 1 percent of a 50-hour week, you're shortchanging your agency and, by extension, your governor or county executive.
Reporters are disarmed by likable, accessible CEOs and, although that doesn't mean they'll always report favorable stories, things will go a lot better. This is especially true when the news is bad and they've learned you're a straight shooter they can trust.
Some years ago, an Oregon timberindustry trade organization claimed it was getting only negative editorials from the local paper. The public affairs director set up a meeting between the conservative executive director and the liberal editorial writer. Despite their philosophical differences, they hit it off nicely; the editor could see that the industry guy wanted to do the right thing, and subsequent editorials were better.
You know this: It's all about relationships. If you hadn't created a good relationship with your local and federal counterparts, doing business with them could be unpleasant.
Likewise, don't just respond to journalists, but clue reporters in on what questions they're not informed enough to ask. Suggest story ideas, including those in which you have no self-interest. Your media relations ought to be at least 51 percent outreach through news releases, newspaper guest opinions, broadcast interviews, story pitches to reporters and such.
A tiny example: Oregon's human service department recently sent letters to small-market radio stations offering experts to talk with talk-show hosts about underage drinking. Within days, a quarter of the contacted stations had conducted interviews.
Similarly, in 2005 the agency issued 20 newspaper guest opinions and 12 magazine columns whose combined advertising value-had we purchased the space at published rates-was more than $51,000. That isn't an impressive figure in a budget in the multiple billions-until you realize that program and communications staffers spent less than 200 hours on those columns, for a return on investment exceeding $250 an hour.
Whatever the media vehicle, reducing abstraction by offering real people is essential to your success: clients speaking at your news conference, a news-release example of how a client was affected, a client's experience recounted in a broadcast interview or newspaper guest opinion. Journalists need people's experiences so they can interest readers, listeners and viewers in your story.
When you consider delaying returning a reporter's call-or simply not calling back-try to picture FDR sitting in the governor's office in Albany. It was there he learned that public officials who provide the most information usually define the issue, dominate the story and get the headline. By contrast, waiting until the last minute to call back means your comment is likely to be chinked into the larger story; and if you don't respond at all, you become the guy or gal who "didn't return calls." Guilty.
Although it seems counterintuitive, it's a good idea to put out your bad news before your critics do. And you know they will. If you take charge, explaining how you fouled up and how you're fixing it, odds are good that reporters won't look for critics to slam you. But if your critics put out your bad news, they'll get the headline and you'll be controlling damage.
Even when human service organizations feel hogtied by confidentiality restrictions, as in stories about child abuse cases, they should respond. When you're barred by law from talking about a particular case, you still can say "here's how we would handle a case similar to the one you're describing." Likewise, if it's too early to tell a reporter how you're going to resolve an issue, you can talk about the process you're using. If you don't fill that news vacuum, somebody who sees things differently from you undoubtedly will.
If a client is attacking you, and you can't respond because her records are legally protected, then tell the reporter you will talk about the case if the client will sign a release. If the client refuses to do so, that may send a "be wary" message to the reporter.
As Ike's press secretary Jim Hagerty knew, reporters love detail and live to report secrets. Knowing that, according to James Deakin's wonderful book, "Straight Stuff," Hagerty issued medical bulletins three or four times a day, reported how many calories Ike was getting, names of his doctors and nurses., and even the procedure for how the president's aide made Ike's two-day vegetable soup.
"Nothing appeals more to a reporter than the impression that he is being told everything," Deakin writes. "His natural suspicions are lulled. And even if the suspicions of the newsmen were not entirely silenced, Hagerty kept them so busy that they had no time to listen to their inner voices."
If you question that, ask your top communications staffer.
Your media relations ought to be at least 51 percent outreach through news releases, newspaper guest opinions, broadcast interviews, story pitches to reporters and such.
Waiting until the last minute to call back means your comment is likely to be chinked into the larger story; and if you don't respond at all, you become the guy or gal who'didn't return calls.' Guilty.
When you're barred by law from talking about a particular case, you still can say 'here's how we would handle a case similar to the one you're describing.'
Jim Sellers, a former newspaper reporter and editor, has been an Oregon Department of Human Services communications officer since 1991.…
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Publication information: Article title: It's All about Relationship. Contributors: Sellers, Jim - Author. Magazine title: Policy & Practice. Volume: 64. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 2006. Page number: 10+. © 2008 American Public Human Services Association. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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