The Care and Feeding of Spokespeople-At Odds with the Organization

by admin on July 10, 2017 · 2 comments

Subtitles

You have to understand your spokespeople and what they go through to get good media results.

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 second in a series of articles on, “The Care and Feeding of Spokespeople.” You have to understand your spokespeople and what they go through to get good media results.

Author

Leonard Adam 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.

Article

Knowing the Organization

Knowing as much as possible about the organization short-circuits the response to many media questions. Knowing common or anticipated questions and responses is vital to efficient public relations.

Nevertheless, it is inevitable that you will have to search for answers to some questions, and the process of finding those answers can be painful. There are loads of people within the organization who mistrust the media. They also see the questions as having the potential to hurt them if the information they provide causes problems, so they’re not always eager to cooperate.

Judging the Organization

If you talk to members of the media, they often gauge the organization’s response by how quickly it’s offered. A question that comes in and at 10 a.m. and is answered by 10:15 indicates the efficiency of the organization and the veracity of the response.

Bureaucracies that have trouble answering basic questions “tell” the media that they are disorganized, afraid, or have something to hide. This dilemma is solved by being honest with the reporter, and at the same time playing to the reporter’s preconceived notions of stonewalling bureaucrats.

My response will go something like this:

“Rebecca, I have a bureaucrat (bureaucrat is media-speak for a stonewalling, media-leery official) who is giving me a hard time about providing information to answer your question. He tells me that he has another work deadline that he must meet today, so I will not have an answer for you until five or six o’clock.”

Reporters always seem to understand that you’re having a hard time getting information from a technocrat, but at the same time they appreciate your willingness to try. “Okay, Leonard,” the reporter might say, “I understand that someone in the organization is “busy,” but I appreciate you trying to meet my deadlines.”

If you have established a reputation for meeting the legitimate needs of the media, then this diffuses the reporter’s inclination to see late information as flawed information.

Keeping Everyone Happy

The public affairs officer is constantly “doing a dance” to try to keep everybody happy by understanding the nuances of the organization and the media. The problem is that few are willing to understand the same issues.

There is no shortage of people within any organization who dislike the media and who would rather collect garbage than be seen as cooperating with these “vermin of the airwaves.” At the same time, the media is loaded with cynical reporters who will read inferences into everything an organization does. You will find that the job of a public affairs officer will qualify you to negotiate peace in the Middle East. Your negotiating skills will become so acute that you will be convinced that you are ready for any challenging assignment involving suspicion among organizations.

Do They Like You?

Someone once said that it is better to be liked than to be respected. Individuals within any bureaucracy tend to feel better about people they like and trust. Unfortunately, you could be the best public affairs officer on the face of the earth and still find yourself distrusted by some within your organization. Come to grips with the fact that important bureaucrats will never accept your role. They will make every media encounter a harsh reality. You could be an absolute “whiz” at handling multiple media inquiries and saving the organization, but there will always be some people within the bureaucracy who see you as a threat.

Some within the organization know that you have intense conversations with the media that involve a lot of give and take, and bureaucrats are naturally wary of these sessions. They think that these interplays provide you with a tremendous amount of power, and they are wary of your perceived influence.

It’s my opinion that people who are well-grounded about who they are and what they do are not threatened. They understand that the interaction is necessary, and they value you for the job you do.

It’s also my contention that people who are uncertain about their own abilities will tend to view you suspiciously. It doesn’t matter how good you are (that probably makes it worse). They will remain hostile and suspicious in overt or subtle ways.

Seasoned managers understand that every media encounter involves a “dance.” They realize that hours are spent in off-the-record conversations providing context and information, but some people will continue to fear what they cannot control.

At Odds with the Organization

To do your job, you will want to know everything. You will be looking at statistics or quizzing technocrats about operations constantly. While most people within the organization will cooperate with your need to know, they are often fearful of the consequences. After talking to hundreds of public affairs officers, I am convinced that there will always be people within any organization who will intentionally set up roadblocks to keep you contained.

I do not believe that fellow employees or administrators do this consciously; but their apprehension is a knee-jerk reaction to their fear of the media, and consequently their trepidation regarding you. So it is important to remember that public affairs officers often feel at odds with the very organization that they are defending and advocating (something that savvy reporters will try to play to their advantage).

There is a considerable turnover in public affairs jobs. Most people who inhabit these positions are nomads who occupy the slot for two or three years before moving on to other positions within the organization or to another public affairs job. Part of the reason for this movement relates to difficulties in dealing with bureaucracies. It can take a toll on you as an individual.

To Get Fairness, You Need to Give It

To be successful means being an advocate for the media when warranted. To get fairness, you need to give it. To be effective means gently forcing people to do things that they do not want to do, such as talking to reporters or meeting their deadlines.

One of the key attributes for a successful spokesperson is to challenge the information that is laid before you. Not only do you challenge information, you also politely confront individuals about their statements.

To be a good public affairs officer is to play the role of an aggressive investigator. You need to put yourself in reporters’ shoes and imagine the questions that they would ask. Then you try to ask those questions first. By aggressively seeking information and not settling for easy answers, you can arm yourself with the knowledge and context required to defend your organization successfully.

This can be an impossible task for an insider occupying the public affairs position as a temporary assignment. None of these tactics leads anyone within the organization to think of you as a warm and fuzzy person.

The Care and Feeding of CEOs

The next basic role in the care and feeding of public affairs officers is to understand that there must be a trusting relationship between the spokesperson and the CEO. This can be an unfortunate reality.

A spokesperson can bring an incredible array of skills to the job only to flounder when he or she cannot form a personal bond with the chief executive officer. The spokesperson could have a long-term and very successful relationship with the CEO but struggle mightily under the CEO’s replacement.

There are very successful public affairs officers who have spent years on the job and then suddenly leave because of an inability to establish a relationship with a new director. Sometimes, success has little to do with skills or an exemplary work history. At times, the only thing that works is the chemistry between two people.

Experienced spokespeople have been forced from their positions, only to see the organization go up flames because only they were the best at defending and protecting the organization while they were there. There are many executives who quickly discovered that they just got rid of the best person they had to protect them. These executives inherited a new title: unemployed.

Trust

Much of the relationship between spokespeople and CEOs involves trust. I am convinced that a primary reason that I lasted longer than any other director of public information for the state of Maryland (at that time) is because I was lucky enough to work for agency heads who understood the intricacies of public affairs work.

These executives had been in public service for decades and had run large bureaucracies. They understood that there was a certain amount of risk-taking in all interactions with the media, and they knew of the dance that occurs with every media call. They realized that there would be successes as well as failures, and because of that understanding, they were supportive. Because our success greatly outweighed failures, they provided me with a great deal of freedom and trust.

There was a time when I was preparing to do a news conference, and the Secretary of Public Safety asked me how I was going to respond to anticipated questions. I told him that I did not know. I advised him that I would not know what I was going to say until I got out to the podium. “When I get out there, I’ll engage in some small talk and read the mood of the audience. Once I know their mood, then I will know how to respond to their questions,” I said.

I would submit to you that my boss had a tremendous amount of trust to allow me to answer his question in this way. For anybody who has extensive public affairs experience, you know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes you do not know what you’re going to say to questions until you start a news conference or interview. If the audience is hostile and combative, you will look them right in their eyes and give very terse and precise responses. If they are fair and polite, then you return the courtesy with longer answers and context. Knowing which approach to take depends on your instincts.

Control

Most CEOs want control and loyalty. Loyalty is something that you can give, but control is a different matter. To be a successful spokesperson, you must engage in long conversations involving a lot of give and take with reporters and assume that your reputation for honesty and fairness will protect the organization.

The trust factor in successful media relations has more to do with your relationship with a reporter or news organization than your association with your director. Good media relations means that the agency head gives up some control and allows spokespeople the leeway to do what is necessary. This is very difficult for many agency heads to do. There is no simple way to establish this trust. The CEO must be pragmatic enough to rely on someone to handle the media.

When I first came to the Maryland Department of Public Safety, I would have long conversations late at night with the Secretary. He saw enough promise in me to take the time to establish the personal relationship that was necessary for him to give me the freedom to do my job. I in turn worked extraordinarily hard to reward that trust with successful media encounters. The same thing happened with the next Secretary.

The bottom line behind my tenure has been my ability to forge a personal bond with the chief operating officers and their willingness to relinquish control of the media process to me. Regardless of my skills, education, and successes, if I had been unable to form a personal bond, I would have changed jobs years ago.

Next Up

Personal Survival Skills

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].

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{ 2 comments }

Priscilla Lynn July 16, 2017 at 9:40 am

All-in-all, an excellent article, laced with useful tips, tactics and insights, applicable across continents. Printing this one off and adding it to my ‘Binder of Knowledge’ reference resource. Priscilla Lynn, PrisCo Consulting, USA & USVI

admin July 25, 2017 at 2:43 pm

Hi Priscilla. Thanks for your comments. I think you will find upcoming installments to be to your liking. Best, Len.

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