Killing Negative News Through Trust
Deniability may be the single most important function of press representatives.
It is clearly in your best interest if reporters trust you.
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, over fifty national and regional awards.
Success With the Media
I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) because I believe that organizations need to look inward to get better media results. I use contents from the book for this article.
Much of this article is based on my fourteen years as Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety.
The Primary Power of a Spokesperson
Deniability is the primary power of the spokesperson. Many people will not understand this because the story does not appear in the following day’s newspaper. To illustrate these results, I provide management with a daily e-mail of all media contacts I receive throughout the day to ensure they acknowledge the unsubstantiated stories we stop. Here are some examples:
- I was asked whether a mid-level executive was fired because of allegations of corruption. My response was that he received a lateral transfer that had nothing to do with charges of wrongdoing.
- I was told that some were strongly opposed to popular legislation regarding sex offenders. In truth that opposition came from another state agency, not mine.
- Sources suggested that one of our prisons was filled with inmates using drugs. We provided data based on extensive drug testing that inmate use of drugs had declined, not increased.
- A source claimed that one of our divisions was discriminating against African Americans. I pointed out that 80 percent of the administration consisted of African Americans and that blacks constituted 90 percent of the workforce. After a review by our equal employment opportunity officer, I told the reporter that the charges could not be substantiated. The reporter agreed.
- A reporter was told that a correctional employee strip-searched a juvenile visiting one of our prisons as part of a group tour for young people in trouble with the law. Reportedly, the teenager was “mouthy.” Although he was separated from the group (a violation of policy), no search was conducted.
When you consider that each of the examples could have turned up on the front page of any newspaper or as a story in the evening news, then it seems obvious that having a trustful and respectful relationship with the media can pay huge dividends.
Even when it is discredited, it is still possible for a news source to run the accusation and your response. It happens all the time. I have seen damaging stories and reports based upon much less. But the impact of a potentially negative story is lessened.
How To Make Things Clear
What if events are not as clear-cut as the examples I’ve shared so far? In some cases, organizations get themselves into trouble because they are unsure of their position on controversial issues. Employees and others can misinterpret the stumbling that all entities go through when trying to make major decisions, and those misinterpretations can be conveyed to the media in damaging and unflattering terms.
A member of the Maryland General Assembly introduced legislation designed to keep sex offenders behind bars for treatment after their initial incarceration was over. As a result of this action there was widespread debate among experts and the public about what the state should and could do to control sex offenders better. Some believed that we should spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars to incarcerate a relatively small number of sex offenders in prison forever while providing treatment services. Others believed that once a sentence is over, the offender has served his time and has completed his obligation to the public. Thus, he should be let go. Some wanted to put the majority of funds toward treatment in prison, counseling, and strict supervision in the community upon release through the use of lie detector tests and satellite technology to keep track of sex offenders.
The point is that there was significant disagreement in the larger community about what to do with sex offenders. Does it surprise anyone that a similar debate raged within my own Department and throughout government? This is when the job of the spokesperson becomes perilous. This is when the public affairs officer learns to trust his or her own instincts and discovers whether they are right.
When top politicians or some in management are offering opinions, you have to listen very hard to what they are saying. You may even have to call their staff and get a more thorough explanation. Within your own organization, you have to question (and sometimes challenge) executives, agency heads, attorneys, and technical specialists. Your top executive will provide the final input, but many players will be determined to “have their say.” Throughout this exercise, you will notice a very disconcerting theme; very few executives are completely sure of their positions. There is always an endless array of ifs, ands, and buts.
As I wrote this chapter, I was on the front page of the Metro Section of the Washington Post. The article documents the very clear and precise opinion of my Department regarding sex offenders. We are in favor of tracking sex offenders in the community via satellite. We want to focus our incarceration resources on the worst possible offenders. We state that the dilemma is whether to concentrate on a relatively small number of sex offenders in prison or hundreds of offenders in the community.
The interesting aspect of this position is that no one told me “exactly” what I should say to the Washington Post. My statement was just that, “my” statement. It was a result of careful listening to all the players involved (especially top management) to see if I could gain a consensus opinion. Is this the preferred method?
Many would suggest that the spokesperson (yours truly) could have handled the situation much better. Obviously, creating a working paper containing statements from the agency head and principal politicians for their review would have been much better than interpreting their remarks.
Surely, you say, we should have seen this coming. Many would suggest that we should have had enough time to prepare properly. Well, congratulations on some excellent observations. You’re right. This would have been the preferred method.
Endless Competing Priorities
But once again, we had competing priorities, an extremely difficult topic with no clear-cut answers, and limited time to think comprehensively through the situation due to other breaking news.
I would suggest to you that these conditions affect most organizations.
No one disputes that a systematic and careful approach to complex problem solving is the preferred method, but someone once said that when you’re up to your navel in alligators, it’s a little hard to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp.
Here is where spokespeople earn their money. Here is where they develop their reputation. With any luck you realized that this very hot topic was going to produce media inquiries. You conducted research. You spoke to the experts. You worked with your top executives long enough to know their preferences. You’re also astute enough to understand the priorities and nuances of your top politicians. Thus, you know enough about the situation, the key players, and their preferences to create a correct and meaningful statement.
This Has Something To Do With Trust?
What does all this have to do with the reporter trusting you? The answer is everything. Not only do spokespeople provide statements, they also provide context. Context is one of the most important (and difficult) aspects of answering a reporter’s questions. Context means providing the circumstances of the story on an “off the record or background” basis. Without knowing context, the reporter runs the risk of reporting the story inaccurately.
With regard to the sex offender example, I knew the Washington Post reporter fairly well. I had enough trust in her and she in me to take her into my confidence. On a Wednesday evening she asked me for a position statement by no later than Friday at noon. I was not able to respond to her until late Friday evening because my top executives were in meetings. When I provided the statement, I also apologized for the late response. I explained that the consensus opinion I offered was my interpretation of the remarks of many and it had taken time to “get it right.” The reporter understood.
I told her that this was the best I could do under difficult circumstances. “Not everyone may agree with everything, but I believe that the statement is a fair representation of their opinions,” I said. So the reporter was aware that the state’s position may change, and that my statement may be a work in progress.
The article appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. I was very pleased with the results. Because I had enough trust in the reporter, and she had enough trust in me, she wrote the piece fairly.
She conveyed the fact that this was an ongoing story and that some had varied positions. She presented the organization’s position as strong but evolving. She left room for change (wiggle room), which was very important to my organization and to me. Everyone involved favorably received the article. Everybody seemed pleased with the strength of my quote and the reporter’s conveyance of possible changes in the future.
The story worked because I talked to as many people as possible. The story worked because I had correctly interpreted the desires and priorities of my top executives and leading politicians. The story worked because the reporter had enough trust in me to listen to and understand the context of our position.
For more information on good organizational and media relations, see “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X. Your reviews are appreciated.
See my website at http://leonardsipes.com for the entire series.
Contact me at [email protected].