Do you want to influence the story? Then you need to talk to reporters.
Your boss talks to reporters without telling you.
Don’t blow off knowledgeable reporters.
You’re not aware of the important stuff.
Your boss doesn’t know.
Your experts make mistakes.
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.
Some believe that we should not talk to reporters. I maintain that not talking leaves you without influence; you are committing yourself to a negative story. The trick is to know how to talk to the media.
This is the sixth in a series of articles on, “The Art of the Interview.”
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, radio and television; over fifty national and regional awards. Post-Master’s Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.
Your Boss Talks to the Media
Early in my career, I was warned by veteran spokespeople that some in the upper echelon would talk to reporters without telling you. Executives within the organization will use the media to disagree with agency heads or CEOs. They will use reporters to communicate to the rest of the organization when they believe that this is the only way that they will be heard.
The ability to influence the media means power to those who feel outside of the decision-making process. This happens at all levels. Remember this when you’re viciously badmouthing a journalist to a high-ranking person. I once complained about a nasty encounter with a reporter to a group of executives. Two weeks later, the reporter gave me my statements almost word-for-word. I told him that he deserved the remarks, and I had a right to be angry. He just smiled.
With regard to top executives, I was told by a member of the media of an administrator within my department who spoke to a favored reporter, and the same reporter would contact his spokesperson for an official statement. The agency head never advised his press representative that he was talking to the reporter. I told the spokesperson what was happening. She was very hurt and saw her boss in a different light thereafter. I know of nothing else that could possibly place a spokesperson in greater jeopardy.
It’s my opinion that the executive who seems to exhibit the strongest anti-media feelings is usually the one talking to reporters. Additionally, I’ve done follow-up with reporters after a major story and learned that many executive staff for an agency in my department spoke to them off the record. This was conveyed by a variety of reporters. Sometimes it’s not a matter of who is talking, but who’s not.
Don’t Blow Off Knowledgeable Reporters
If a reporter tells you about a negative issue within your organization and provides sufficient detail to back it up, you can assume that there is at least some validity to the accusation. It’s not unusual for you to be on the receiving end of a negative inquiry and know nothing at all about the circumstances being described. You must respond in the only way you know how, honestly. Deny direct knowledge and promise to research it. Never deny what you do not know. Never make a blanket statement that the question is without foundation. You may find your denial in the headline of the morning paper only to retract it when you discover that the accusation not only has merit, but is also true to some degree. Being forced to retract an earlier statement is highly embarrassing, and it has the potential to damage your public affairs career. If you do not know, then say so.
You’re Not Aware
Those of us in public affairs often lament that we are the last to know the important stuff. Executives at all levels hide damaging material and issues from spokespeople all the time. It’s obviously better for you to know everything, thus you have the opportunity to be prepared. Even when there is a trusting relationship between spokespeople and executives, they believe that it’s in your interest not to be told.
In any organization, it is not unusual for information on important projects to take weeks or months to reach you. Sometimes information does not get through to you at all. Technical experts will purposely withhold information. Research staff will keep tough news quiet.
We often say that information is power. Well, there are people who realize this and use the information they have only when it benefits them or their part of the organization. These “information hogs” will not provide data or knowledge of the incident until it suits their purposes.
Your Boss Doesn’t Know
Even more startling is the fact that your top executives are often unaware of negatives within their own organizations. People who run agencies and subdivisions are not anxious to inform top executives of wrongdoing or mistakes. Even executives at the highest levels of the organization get misled; what they get is often sugarcoated to deflect personal blame.
It is not unknown for the agency spokesperson to get an inquiry from the media, and that inquiry is “run by” the executive with the assertion denied, only to be retracted when it’s discovered to be true. The agency spokesperson must learn to play detective. We must be realistic about the information that flows (or does not flow) to us.
If a reporter offers you details, check it out with those closest to the action before going to your executives. I have been the bearer of bad news to multiple executives, none of which had any prior knowledge of the information I was sharing. Going to the technical experts or mid-level managers first gives them an opportunity to “fess up.” I remind them that not coming clean after the reporter’s accusations would place themselves as well as the executive in jeopardy. If I went to my boss first, he wouldn’t have the knowledge to respond and his probable inclination would be to deny.
That’s why the spokesperson needs to keep her options open and personally investigate potentially damaging stories. After several of these episodes, the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety began to see me as more than a spokesperson and gave me unfettered access to everything and everyone in his agencies. I became a member of the Secretary’s personal staff because I was there to protect him from the media, and his own people. News representatives began to understand this relationship, thus my word was trusted as being the best voice of the agency.
Your Experts Make Mistakes
When negative events occur, it is your job to consult the right mix of technical experts, attorneys, and mid-to senior-level executives to understand the issues properly. But one of the dilemmas is that key people make mistakes. Attorneys apply the wrong laws, technical experts misunderstand operations, or your executives are confused. This is a dangerous moment. When negative news is breaking, especially if it’s coming fast and furious, I have found that people make basic and fundamental mistakes (especially if key people are unavailable). To put it bluntly, they give you wrong information. It’s obviously a very difficult situation, but you need to be aware that it happens. Veteran spokespeople assert that it occurs more times than you would think.
I have had executives who have calmly and dispassionately provided what they think is true, or offer what they wish was true, and have it turn out to be completely wrong. To be caught in the glare of media exposure is not a pleasant experience. Like the proverbial deer in the headlights, senior executives and technical experts can freeze. Fear does little to induce clarity. These individuals have trained themselves to display a very cool and calm demeanor regardless of the circumstances. It can be very disarming when they are sitting there serenely providing you with the wrong information. When media questions about a negative event are coming fast, the possibility of misinformation is high. Because the information is coming from an executive does not mean it’s correct. Just because the legal opinion comes from an attorney does not mean it’s accurate. This is why the spokesperson spends a good deal of time learning about every aspect of the organization and its operations.
You need to ask hard questions. You need to ask the same questions that any reporter would ask. Sometimes, you need to be tactful, yet forceful in the questioning of technical experts or executives. Like a good reporter or detective, you’re going to uncover discrepancies in any story. In fact, others within the organization may tell you that the information you have received from executives is flat out wrong. Keep this in mind as you progress throughout your career. Treat all well. You never know who will be in a position to save you.
My executives, the organization, and I have been saved multiple times by a low-to-mid-level employee who came to me and said that false information had been provided. I had senior employees strongly assert a position, and we were ready to proceed when someone from the research department gave me data that completely disproved their hypothesis. You cannot afford to ignore divergent points of view. If you receive an opinion from an executive but are told by a technical expert that he or she “simply does not understand the situation,” then you cannot use the information until the discrepancy is resolved. You must have the courage, tact, and will to solve this issue before moving forward.
Put the two or three individuals who are offering different opinions in the same room. Once again, with all the diplomacy you can muster; lead them in a joint discussion until a consensus is reached. You may have to go so far as to tell a very important person that others are questioning their views. This is a very difficult and somewhat dangerous time for the public affairs person. These high-powered individuals do not take kindly to a discussion involving mistakes.
Do individuals purposely lie? In my opinion, most do not. While I do not think that it is common under stressful circumstances for an individual to lie, it is not unusual for them to tell you what they think you want or need to hear.
Beware of the easy explanation. Be cautious of the solution that fits your circumstances like a glove. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably isn’t true. Your best defense is to be aware that it happens.
Success With the Media
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.
Contact me at [email protected].