Successful Media Relations: The Need For One Spokesperson
Blaming media difficulties on the budget.
It’s not our fault.
The need for one spokesperson.
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising 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 Barnes and Noble and 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.
Blame It On The Budget
In most agencies, there are budget issues galore. We could justifiably take every piece of negative news and blame it on an inadequate budget or vague laws or an extremely difficult mission or political or shareholder influence, and we would be correct to some degree.
But if the negative news involves the death of a child at the hands of a sex offender (a true story) standing up and proclaiming that the incident is “not our fault” because of the above is almost guaranteed to cause the agency head her job.
In many bad news stories, technocrats and others will emphatically insist that the organization is greatly burdened by fiscal, political, economic, and other burdens that greatly hamper their ability to get the job done.
They will assert that the incident is “controlled” by outside forces, so why should they “take a hit?” “When are you going to tell the whole truth about the situation,” they ask me. “Shouldn’t the public know everything,” they assert.
These are appropriate questions that have no clear-cut answers. But in many cases, the media are already aware of your issues. Your hospital may be facing a health care problem due to difficulties in recruiting nurses. This issue may not be under your “complete” control due to salary or location factors. Yet ongoing troubles with nursing care at your health center are receiving negative publicity.
It’s perfectly justifiable to point out the difficulties in recruiting and retaining nurses and the steps you have taken to rectify the situation. But it’s more important to understand the concerns of those alleging inadequate medical treatment and to express sincere sympathy for their plight (even though your lawyers will urge that you say little about the issue due to pending litigation). Pointing out remedies (without admitting legal culpability) addressing renewed efforts to solve the problem and taking responsibility are important ingredients in dealing with the issue.
But who doesn’t know that there is a nationwide nursing shortage? Who is not aware that a struggling economy has the potential for hurting your business?
Show me the person that is unaware that lousy salaries make hiring great employees difficult. I do not know of a reporter who lacks knowledge of the major problems facing most agencies or corporations.
But the public and media make the assumption that your leadership knew all of this when they took the job and that it is their responsibility to seek answers and minimize failure within the confines of those realities. Yep, it may be unfair, but it’s true. A nationwide nursing shortage may not “technically” be the responsibility of your hospital, yet the media will insist that it is “to some degree.”
Citizens, stockholders, and the media will insist that the “buck stops somewhere.” “Someone must take responsibility. Someone must assert control,” they will say. The public and the media cannot and will not look at it in any other way.
Perceived accountability is yet another reason not to let potentially negative issues take the public and the media by surprise. Constant dialog with the media and important publics will probably take some of the sting out of issues if they become major news stories.
Proactive placement of positive and even neutral stories about your struggles through social and traditional media provides everyone with a fuller context, thus giving you some control. More on this later.
Honorable executives working hard to find solutions are rarely “targeted” by the media for exhaustive negative news during difficult periods if they are aware of your ongoing efforts.
It’s Not Our Fault
The Department of Public Safety worked to enhance health care to female inmates and their newborn children. Regardless of the public’s animosity towards people caught up in the criminal justice system, no one would object to better medical care for children and mothers, correct?
It was obviously a win-win situation for all concerned, most thought. I will not bore you with the details, but everything went wrong with the project, and little of it was under our control. All of this was occurring at the time of impending (and massive) budget cuts due to a shrinking economy and tax base. Advocates for the project vigorously fought for its implementation and constantly went to the media with complaints that we were not moving fast enough.
The problem was that some advocates were more interested in the big picture than the legal, fiscal, and community relations difficulties that the program and location faced (community members objected to the presence of the facility).
But it made little sense for us to fight these issues publicly. We “took a hit.”
We decided that it was better for us to accept some responsibility for the issue than to point fingers at others, regardless of how justifiable that finger pointing was (yes, I did discuss some challenges with media on an off-the-record basis). We could argue the degree of blame, but we “were” partially responsible for the downfall of the project. The extent was open to dispute.
But we “took a hit” nevertheless. We accepted responsibility because it was in the public’s best interest for us to do so. There are times when it’s best for all concerned to take some blame, buy time to fix the problem, and move on.
I want to return to lines of communication one final time with an emphasis on negative events.
Within any bureaucracy, you have multiple experts and executives who could speak to any topic that your organization faces. But during times of profoundly negative news, it becomes crucial to have only one spokesperson.
In one of the biggest stories I handled, an individual with a long history of sexual violence towards children, was legally released from prison and was under our supervision in the community for less than one week when he sexually assaulted and murdered a nine-year-old child.
I would like to emphasize that no procedural rules, steps or laws were violated in the supervision of the offender. All personnel had operated within existing guidelines. But the murder of a child creates widespread and understandable revulsion. Whether we like it or not, the media and public will assign responsibility for the incident.
There were a variety of agencies that had interacted with this offender and could share “blame.” There were local prosecutors who may have failed to pursue all cases in the past. There were treatment providers who could have found a “cure” for this individual. There were judges who could have imposed longer sentences to keep him in prison.
Some of the above decided to point fingers at my organization to deflect attention away from them. They claimed that the offender should have stayed longer or received extensive services while in prison. Many claimed that we should have made better preparations in the community for his return. They felt that we should have supervised the offender more closely during the five days of release.
Again, I emphasize that no laws were violated by my agency, and no rules and regulations were broken. His release from prison was consistent with the discharge procedures of offenders in virtually all prison systems in this country.
His community surveillance was equal to that of other supervision agencies. But others maintained that we could have done better in preparing this offender for his release. Much to the consternation of some within my agency, the critics were right “to some degree.” We could have done a better job.
We admitted as much when we recognized two years before the incident that the process of releasing offenders (especially sex offenders) needed improvement. The Secretary of the Department was in the process of implementing a plan.
So we “took a hit” even though we could have argued that no rules or laws were broken in the offender’s release. We could have argued that this was the current state of the art in the country. We could have maintained that the budget did not allow for such intensive programming before release.
We could have openly blamed others (the media would have loved the controversy this would have generated). But we did not.
We acknowledged that there were deficiencies within the system, and we were in the process of correcting them. And we expressed great (and genuine) revulsion over the event. Yes-even bureaucrats are allowed to express strong emotions regarding systems that contribute to the death of a child.
Three major newspapers in the market and beyond offered exhaustive analyses of the incident. We answered every question. We did not blame others (although we made sure that reporters were aware of the “full” story on an off-the-record basis). We were polite. We tried to help the media at every turn.
The result was that all articles were extremely fair to our agency. All reports carefully illustrated that a multitude of agencies had contact with the criminal and that all played a part in the offender’s eventual release from prison. All mentioned my department’s effort to improve the method of releasing and supervising such inmates. It’s important to remember that these reporters (and their editorial boards) could have attacked my organization and its leadership. It would have been easy. But all chose not to.
Why One Spokesperson?
As I said, there was an internal debate as to how much of this incident was the “fault” of my agency. There was a multitude of individuals within my Department holding different points of view. This fact alone should make it obvious to anyone that there should be one spokesperson.
Multiple spokespeople offering a variety of opinions on behalf of my agency would have sent many messages to the media and the public. Attorneys and technical specialists, agency heads and influential others had different points of view. But when you go to speak to the media, there should be only one point of view, thus one spokesperson.
Because of the gravity of the story, a national news organization expressed interest in covering it. I already conveyed to them the same information I offered to others. Then the network news producers contacted several agency heads within the Department and asked them for on-camera interviews. Some were considering the offer.
This was a dangerous turn of events. If every agency head decided to speak, there would be a variety of opinions and facts placed before the media. It does not matter how prepared they are. It does not matter if all four agency heads were in the same room at the same time with the same agreements as to what to say and how to say it; some would innocently contradict the other.
The media could create a wedge showing inconsistencies in the story and would begin to examine differences. The organization’s position could begin to unravel. There are always different versions of the truth regardless of our determination to honestly answer questions. Confusion over facts is how organizations are injured, and this is how senior staff lose their jobs.
When organizations speak, it is essential that they do it with one voice. Usually, that means one spokesperson. The Secretary of the Department decided that there would be one voice-mine.
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].