A long-range view of media relations is best.
Sometimes, you have to take a hit.
Delay can be deadly.
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of award-winning media relations, over fifty national and regional awards.
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Success With the Media
I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X) because I believe that organizations need to look inward to get better media results. This modified article is an excerpt from the book.
See my website at http://leonardSipes.Com for previous articles. The article is partially based on my experiences as the Director of Public Information (for 14 years) for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, consisting of a variety of police and correctional agencies.
Winning The War
In the introduction, I mentioned that the bottom-line advice contained in this book is an emphasis on winning the war, not the battle. We need to examine this concept further.
We’re going to lose battles. It will be frustrating and exhausting but nevertheless, we will lose. Those of us representing agencies that carry the heavy burden of policy in practically everything we do will find ourselves at times on the short end of the stick.
The Department handled 150,000 criminal offenders and cases (in prison or on community supervision) on any given day. It was very obvious to everyone that some of our charges would do something wrong, and in some cases terribly wrong.
On the day that I wrote this chapter, a violent criminal serving a very long sentence in a super maximum-security prison had stabbed (tried to murder) a correctional officer. The prison system’s public information staff spent the night gathering information and talking to the media.
I recognized that on any given day I could be called into service. I fully understood that the negatives of my job were many. I also realize that there are many agencies that are not significantly different.
On any given day, law enforcement or the military will have to explain why an employee was injured or killed in an accident. The teaching hospital will be asked why an improving patient died while under its care. The multinational corporation will be asked to respond to allegations of pollution. The college will be asked to explain the series of rapes on its campus. The local utility will be questioned about long-term power outages. The larger and more complex the organization the greater the chance for challenging media encounters.
Before moving into the specific recommendations on how to deal with these events, we must first recognize that they occur. There is little that you can do to keep negative events from happening. In the best of organizations, bad news occurs. The role of the public affairs official, however, is to keep these events through honorable means from becoming worse.
Keeping it from becoming worse, however, can be far more complicated than it has to be.
The first thing you have to do when bad news hits is to keep your perspective. We within the organization tend to internalize events. We tend to dwell upon the negative as if every reporter and every citizen remember every event forever. They do not. New and breaking stories will quickly replace your “crisis.” Remember this and hold onto it as you deal with the latest issue.
How you handle the current event, as negative as it may be, may even enhance your reputation rather than detract from it, as long as the organization has an honorable reputation and does not do anything stupid. This is what I call, “taking a hit.”
Taking A Hit
“Taking a hit,” means not getting flustered over the current negative event.
“Taking a hit,” means not giving in to the Smoke Blowers.
“Taking a hit” means that you have the ability not to make a negative situation any worse than what it has to be.
Those of us who represent cumbersome agencies take painful pride in our ability to “take a hit.” We recognize that negative news, like the sunrise, will happen. We fully understand that we do not represent the United Way, the successful local professional sports team or the Sisters of Charity. We know how to “take a hit” because we understand that our objective is to win the war, not the battle.
Battles are an everyday part of our lives. Negative news happens. Organizations can crumble over negative news.
I’ve seen establishments put themselves at risk because they overreact to bad news or they do not react at all or they take forever to craft a statement.
Rather than simply admit that they were at fault (or at least partially at fault) and apologize to the public for their indiscretions, they fuss and fume and fight with the media.
Too many top executives feel that their honor or performance has been questioned and will not allow public affairs professionals to put out the fire. They make things much worse than they have to be and then wonder why they are the recipients of widespread negative news coverage.
“Taking a hit” often means that we acknowledge the problem and that the organization will implement measures to fix it.
I’m not suggesting that organizations take blame for something unfolding where they are not sure of the facts. Yes, it takes time to assess and investigate. Telling the media that you take the situation very seriously and that you are moving as quickly as possible to gather all the facts is fine.
Just move as quickly as humanly possible and be careful not to deny what you do not know.
Yes, I understand that some organizations are unfairly implicated in issues that may not be of their making. If you are sure of your position, then fight back (but please remember the Smoke Blowers).
I do understand that some reporters are unfair. I also understand that we exist in a world that assigns blame regardless as to justification.
Defend yourself if you are truly blameless (strategies forthcoming). You have every right to point out the positives and to make your case to the media and the public. You need to establish your primary communication objectives, and hammer away at these at every available turn.
But you do not have the right to unjustifiably endanger your organization by using inappropriate means to justify your position. I also understand that the main purpose of the spokesperson is to make sure that the organization and its leadership and its mission continues, thus winning the war.
Few organizations thrive through constant turnover of senior staff. The confidence that accompanies long-term executives and their multi-year missions are often vital to the well being of the organization and the public it serves. In my 35 years of talking to the media, I have never lost an agency head to bad publicity.
I do not expect all readers to fully accept the implications suggested by making sure that the “leadership” continues. I assume that many would feel that a bunch of bloated government or corporate bureaucrats are hardly worth saving. Sometimes, a change in top leadership is good for the organization, many would assert.
Maybe, but I would disagree most of the time. Assuming that the “leadership” is made up of honorable people with the necessary skills, the organization often takes on their personality and goals. Research is full of examples of successful initiatives that could not be replicated because the key factor was different management.
If you choose all-out battle as your philosophy for every media problem that comes along, then you are going to lose, and you’re going to endanger management. The media and the public have little tolerance for those who cannot acknowledge at least partial responsibility, however unfairly you think that the burden is assigned.
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 Amazon at https://amzn.com/151948965X
See my website at http://leonardsipes.com for the entire series.
Contact me at [email protected].