Deniability may be the single most important function of press representatives.
I have discovered a simple truth in life: It is clearly in your best interest if reporters respect and like you, and the people you represent.
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.
See my website at http://LeonardSipes.Com for previous articles.
A Relationship with the Media Is Easier Than You Think
The first thing to understand in creating a working relationship with the media is that it is relatively easy. There are so many people doing it wrong that you will be greatly appreciated for doing it right. Doing it right means taking a common sense approach to working with reporters. Here’s what they want. They want you to:
- Be available.
- Know what you are talking about.
- Have a friendly manner and a kind tone of voice.
- Meet their deadlines.
- Be available in the evenings and on weekends.
- Work for their legitimate needs.
- Provide an honest answer to their questions.
Reporters want the same things that we want: civility, honesty, and fairness.
I had the occasion to work with a spokesperson from the largest sheriff’s department in the state. I was always interested by the fact that the media seemed to give him positive or even-handed stories. It was intriguing that he was a new public affairs professional, only on the job for six months. He came to me looking for advice. He wanted to know how to be a better public affairs officer. I told him that he had 80 percent of the game licked. He was a friendly, courteous, and energetic individual whose service-oriented response to the media won them over most times. He worked hard for them, and they in return provided him and his department with fair reporting. I’m not quite sure media relations needs to be any more difficult than the relationship I just described.
After many years of speaking to the media, I have discovered a simple truth in life: It is clearly in your best interest if they respect and like you, and the people you represent.
Do They Like You? Do They Respect You?
When I suggest to reporters that their coverage can depend on whether they like the spokesperson or the organization involved, many strongly disagree. They believe that their reports or articles are based solely upon the issues.
It’s insulting to many of them that their reporting could be influenced by the likability of spokespeople or their feelings about the groups they represent. In their minds, spokespeople could be the rudest, nastiest SOBs on the face of the earth, and the organization that they represent could be the International Society of Brutal Dictators, but the resulting article would still be fair, impartial, and above board.
Bull-droppings! I have been dealing with reporters for decades. For the most part, I like them. I do believe that most reporters are fair-minded individuals. At the same time they are as human as the rest of us, which means they are subject to the same biases as the rest of us. One of those biases includes our extreme dislike of unnecessarily combative or evasive people.
How you feel about rude and nasty people seems to rub off on the businesses that they represent. If you feel cheated or inadequately served by a car salesperson, you’re just as likely to feel that his company is equally disreputable. Why would it be any different for you and the people you represent?
As disagreeable as it will be to some, the likability factor becomes a critical ingredient when you communicate with the media. Many of my friends and associates in public affairs dislike this discussion. They, like my friends in the media, strongly believe that articles and reports should reflect news, not personal perceptions.
I’m not suggesting that relations with reporters should be extremely personal or unprofessional. What I am suggesting, however, is that we need to be advocates for the media when warranted. Often your reputation is based on your willingness to go beyond normal procedures. To put it bluntly, they want access that is usually denied. Choose carefully, but at least consider your options.
Stopping Negative News
Most of the interaction between your agency and the media will take place through telephone calls or e-mails to the designated spokesperson. While it’s impossible to describe the interplay and nuances of these conversations fully, both parties understand that much is at stake in each and every interaction.
After the initial pleasantries, the reporter will start asking a series of questions. Sometimes, the questions will deal with potentially negative news. If the spokesperson has done her job, she will have a sufficiently trustful relationship with the reporter allowing her to deny the premise of the question when untrue, thus ending any further inquiries on the part of the reporter.
Deniability may be the single most important function of press representatives. Virtually each working day brings media inquiries that have negative yet exaggerated implications. The agencies we represent have thousands of employees and more than just a couple have “axes to grind.” Our organizations are often immensely complex and hard to understand. There is lots of room for conflict and confusion over who we are and what we do. There are endless possibilities for reporters (and disgruntled employees) to misunderstand the business and their point of view, thus endless opportunities for negative inquiries.
Reporters are not going to walk away from the story unless they trust you. Your word is now your bond. To me, this is a profound thought. The fact that reporters would remove themselves from a potential story based on your word is something that needs to be explored in a future article.
In all bureaucracies, there is endless room for confusion. The spokesperson is not going to know every nuance of every aspect of the operation. There are subtleties, inferences, and differences over internal and external research, operations, and many other factors that cause insecurity.
Uncertainty provides inadequate explanations. Many feel the need to run everything by everybody before responding. This situation produces timid spokespeople, and poor responses.
Inadequate replies are often interpreted as the organization trying to “hide something.” Skepticism is enough for some news organizations to start investigations and lends credibility to disgruntled employees making negative assertions.
If they like or trust you, they often give you the benefit of doubt. If they don’t, they won’t. It can be that simple.
There is no magic ingredient that solves the problem of likability and trust. Public affairs officers must know as much as possible about their company and its policies. They must have a service orientation to the media and should act as an advocate when warranted.
Media representatives must be bold enough to disagree with superiors. In many organizations the spokesperson finds it extremely difficult to probe policymakers and technical specialists aggressively when the answers they give are inconsistent or fly in the face of public opinion. Yet all of this and much more is necessary if you are to be seen as a credible and trustworthy representative. If you are going to have the ability to stop an inaccurate story, then you must build trust and accuracy in yourself and your business.
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
See my website at http://leonardsipes.com for the entire series.
Contact me at [email protected].