It's All about Relationship

By Sellers, Jim | Policy & Practice, June 2006 | Go to article overview

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.

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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 decor of his hospital room to the birthday gifts that his grandchildren were giving him.

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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 high-priced media-relations workshop in Chicago. "Help reporters do their jobs," the flier's headline said, "and they will help you do yours."

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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 straight shooter they can trust.

Some years ago, an Oregon timber-industry 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. …

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