A series of child deaths and injuries in Delaware's foster care system in the late 1990s set off a firestorm of public outcry for change. Fueled by relentless media coverage, the pressure on the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families to account for the system's failures was overwhelming, painful, and demoralizing for agency staff and leadership. The challenge for change became a political issue in the 1998 General Assembly elections and continued into the gubernatorial election two years later. To their credit, Delaware lawmakers rose to the challenge and passed real reforms and financing that led to significant improvements in the child welfare system. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner adopted foster care reform as a legacy platform within the first 90 days of her election in November 2000 and, from that, emanated policy and practices that in many respects have become a model for the nation today. Five years later, the results are in.
This is democracy at its best: the system of checks and balances at work among the triad of citizens, government, and the media. As difficult as it was for Delaware to go through the public scrutiny described above, the result was real systems change that will forever alter the success trajectory for so many children in care.
In my current government leadership role, I have a unique perspective on relationships with the press. A former journalist, public relations professional and marketing consultant, I view reporters and editors as colleagues in that uniquely American freedom that enables an educated public and a working democracy. I usually stand alone in that pasture, but my 30-year career experience with media relations suggests that this approach works.
Understanding the underpinnings of media relations is essential. Good relationships with the media, as in life, nurture mutual respect, transparency, dialogue, and understanding. Good working relationships produce a better chance of getting both sides of the crisis story told accurately and, equally important, produce more opportunities to elucidate the plethora of good news stories about human service successes. According to Richard Jones, a New York Times reporter based in Trenton, N.J., who covered child welfare for a number of years, the bottom line for reporters and agency directors is that the quality of the relationship is largely what they choose to make it. "If the default positions of directors are defensiveness and a siege or bunker mentality, that will be reflected in your relationship with the media," he says. "Likewise, if things are less polarized and there is a spirit of professionalism, transparency and relative candor, that will be reflected in media relationships, too."
Public human service, by its nature, is rife with human drama--tragedies and successes that make great news stories. Most reporters really do want to write a good story and report the facts correctly. Their professional credibility, and that of their media outlet, is on the line. It is important to recognize, though, that the reporter covering Medicaid today may have been on the schools beat last week and may not have enough background to do the job well. This, then, is an opportunity to educate and establish a dialogue on issues of interest to the agency and the media. It is important to avoid acronyms, jargon, and bureaucratic language so the reporter can write for the general public.
Getting to know each other before the crisis arises is an important strategy for both sides. Effective proactive media relations produce inspiring human interest stories, educational articles about new services or initiatives, editorial pieces, and positions staff as experts. The proactive approach helps to further the agency's agenda, connect to the community and legislators, leverage the media for promoting agency services, and engender public confidence. …