The Care and Feeding of Spokespeople

by admin on July 3, 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 first 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

After several months of discussion, my wife and daughters brought home a puppy to provide company to an older dog. We named her Stormy, after the inclement weather that accompanied her arrival. Along with Stormy, there came a wealth advice from the breeder. Books on understanding and taking care of puppies supplemented this advice. All of this was designed to provide insight into the psychological stages and well being of the new dog. We were admonished that taking care of a puppy required a lot of understanding and love. We came to discover that this endeavor was well documented, and required much from us to ensure that the puppy was both understood and treated well.

There are a lot of resources about the care of dogs but virtually nothing about the care of spokespeople. Anyone coming into this job finds a rather Byzantine set of realities that few are prepared for. This book examines the media interview process while addressing what works and what doesn’t. It’s impossible to put the results into context without an examination of how spokespeople are hired and what happens to them as they progress through their jobs.

It is my hope that this chapter will provide a first step in the understanding of and care for those who speak for organizations.

New to the Job

I arrived at the Maryland Department of Public Safety after ten years of speaking to the media for two organizations funded by the Department of Justice. Although my original role was that of a senior information specialist for anti-crime initiatives, I found myself constantly talking to the media.

My position included a wide array of media-related jobs. I was part of the team that introduced and nurtured the “McGruff—Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign (the nation’s most successful public service advertising effort). On this team, I was fortunate enough to work with the country’s largest advertising agency that handled the pro-bono account for McGruff. There I learned much about advertising and media campaigns. I was responsible for responding to thousands of media inquiries, and I frequently appeared on national television and radio shows. My specialties were criminological research and making data useful and accessible.

I wrote an array of original documents that were designed to make research come alive for the average person. Independent researchers gave my operation and publications high marks. I felt that I was thoroughly qualified to take on any public affairs position, especially one within a criminal justice agency.

Reality Sets In

When I began my Department of Public Safety job, I quickly realized how little I knew about running public affairs for a large and cumbersome bureaucracy in the nation’s fourth largest market (and one of the most aggressive).

As Director of Public Information for the state’s largest agency, I had to acknowledge that I knew little about managing public relations for this type of agency. Ten years of experience in speaking to the media about criminal justice affairs, along with a lifelong professional investment in the criminal justice system and four college degrees, did not give me the skills necessary to succeed in my new position.

The existing public affairs staff assigned to departmental agencies ranged from cordial to sometimes hostile. These were experienced and cynical professionals who had fought countless battles with their own agencies and the media and survived. They felt that if I accepted the job as director, then I should know more than them. I did not. They understood what I did not: that spending ten years of talking to the media about crime-related research and the McGruff campaign was inadequate preparation for the endless policy disputes, internal disagreements, and a very aggressive corps of media.

The media was no longer that friendly bunch of people who simply wanted to understand the complexities of criminological research or the goals of a talking cartoon dog that gave anti-crime advice. They could be hostile, demanding, and cynical. They wanted their information to be accurate and on time, and they were willing to make you pay a price for failure.

Couldn’t Find Answers

I was astounded at how difficult it was to find answers within the bureaucracy. Everyone knew of someone else who was more qualified than themselves to provide the right information. I was also equally dismayed at times by the misinformation that was provided. It was astonishing to receive information from one of our thirteen agency heads only to discover that it was incorrect. When I received a letter from a major newspaper criticizing my ability to provide them with correct answers, I wanted to fire off a letter of my own asking them how I was supposed to magically know when an agency head was giving me bad information.

In going through this baptism by fire, I discovered that some of my public affairs officers offered little to no help. They seemed to say, “We have survived in this rough-and-tumble world without assistance from anyone. We’re not about to throw you a lifeline. You are on your own. You need to prove yourself worthy.”

Despite all of this, I survived and thrived, and I have the scars to prove it. Now when a new public affairs officer comes to work for my organization, I try my hardest to protect them and to give them time to grow into the job. I try to get them to understand the subtleties and the nuances of our occupation. Through this effort, it’s my hope that they will better appreciate the job and be prepared for its complexities. That is the purpose of this chapter: to provide a guide for the care and feeding of public affairs officers.

Understanding Your Spokesperson

When asked to comment on their jobs, most public affairs personnel have difficulty putting their professional lives into perspective. The job is equally described as fun and imaginative, and extraordinarily difficult and stressful at the same time. Most of us enjoy what we do. We’re intricately involved in virtually every major initiative within the organization. We get to “sit at the table” and have our voices heard by decision makers.

To be able to speak to the media, you have to have confidence in yourself and your message; it cannot happen any other way. Although there are endless roadblocks to that confidence, when you speak you have to imagine yourself as a superhero regardless of the circumstances.

The job is described by many as the most taxing of our careers. The principle reason is the fact that our organizations move with the speed of a wounded, drugged snail.

Not Made for Speed

Our bureaucracies are not made for speed. Regardless of their nature, whether they are governmental or corporate, a bureaucracy is incapable of quick movement. You are the only one (or one of few) within your organization who must meet deadlines daily. The media has little respect for organizations that cannot respond quickly and accurately.

Ninety percent of all media inquiries into my organization are satisfied the same day. The remaining ten percent require research and are answered with the promise of a response within a specific time frame. Acquiring the proficiency to respond timely on a regular basis is guaranteed to drive most public affairs people crazy.

The organization is filled with individuals who are given days, weeks, or longer to meet deadlines. A common refrain goes something like this: “Len, I’m not going to let this job kill me. You will have your information as soon as I can get to it. I have other projects that are due today.”

When I tell this person that “as soon as I can get to it” is not nearly good enough, and that I have to have the information within an hour or two, it draws an inevitable rebuke:

“Do you really expect me to drop everything that I’m doing just to respond to some nitwit reporter?”

I try to explain that I need this information quickly to allow me the time to run it by others in the organization to see if they are comfortable with its release. My contact will offer a series of irrelevant questions or comments about the reporter and his or her story. They say:

“So what is the reporter writing about?”

“That’s not news. Why would anyone want to write about that?”

“The premise of her question is silly as hell and I’m not going to be suckered into responding.”

So now we’re off and running into a conversation that is a huge waste of time. I say, as politely as I know how, “I’m very sorry that you feel that way, but I have no control over the reporter’s questions. I really do need that information in an hour or two so I can run it by the attorneys and the appropriate agency heads before it’s released.”

Staff will then grumble for another minute or two before finally agreeing to get me the information I need. If the reporter’s call came in at 10 a.m., and my contact promises me the information by noon, then it is guaranteed to be delivered late that afternoon. By the time I run it by the attorneys and track down the relevant agency people to get their comments, I am bumping up against the reporter’s deadlines.

If you received only one media call a day, then you could probably live with slow responses from staff, but you will more likely receive several media calls a day, possibly making such response aggravating.

Next Up

How to manage internal affairs to allow you to successfully respond to media requests.

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 }

Janice Evans-Davis July 5, 2017 at 10:22 am

I just left city government after 14 years handling comms. Half of that time was in the mayor’s office, where I was responsible for overseeing communications in all 20+ city departments. Your piece perfectly captures the reality of these jobs. I intend to share it on LI.

admin July 6, 2017 at 2:54 pm

Thanks Janice: Many thanks for your note. I’m unaware of other publication addressing this issue. I sometimes feel that spokespeople are simply on their own to figure this stuff out. There will be more on this topic in future articles.

Best, Len.

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