Do the wrong people influence media decisions?
Is it possible to manage media responsibilities for complex organizations?
Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of 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 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.
The first article address the internal problems of making good media decisions. What’s below is a continuation with a focus on an example from my past. I was the Director of Public Information for 14 years for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, consisting of a variety of police and correctional agencies. Several had their own full-time public information officers. See http://www.leonardsipes.com/who-makes-media-decisions-in-your-agency/ for the first article in the series
The Battle Begins
Imagine yourself with a vexing internal problem that is well known to disgruntled employees. Those employees decide to “shop” this knowledge around to the media until one happens to show interest. To compound the problem further, let’s say that the major local newspaper embraces the employees. Reporters assigned to the story spend weeks milking employees for all they are worth.
It’s a lovely arrangement as far as the newspaper is concerned and very common in the media business. In fact, the majority of sensational stories seized by the media come to them through employees or detractors with an axe to grind or an agenda to advance.
So the newspaper reporter has time to develop the story and obtain internal documents. Now the intrepid reporter calls you and announces that her newspaper is ready to run it. All she needs is “your side of the story.” She wants your response in two days. How will you respond?
If your organization is like most, you will spend endless hours tracking down executives and experts trying to format a response while your friends in the media sit back and chuckle. They’re way ahead of you. They know they have you in a difficult situation.
They are also very aware that this is an extremely dangerous time for your organization. They are fully aware that these are the circumstances that cause “mistakes” to happen.
They know that some on the inside are angry that their day or week is being torn apart and that “others” know of the problem. Reporters know that executives are cursing. They also realize that some on the inside are insisting that you stonewall the reporter, that you deny the problem, or that you announce that it’s under “investigation.”
Other organizations will engage in that time-honored game of “identify the snitch.” All of this is a common response to the unexpected media inquiry, and it can lead to the downfall of the organization’s leadership if the response is less than adequate or intentionally dishonest.
This is a dangerous time for your organization and a very difficult time for public affairs staff. You have several other media calls pending on other topics. You’re trying to arrange and produce television and radio shows as well as a promotional video. Today there was supposed to be a big meeting on changes to your Internet site. There is a lot going on. The same holds true for your executives. How will all of you respond?
A prison we operated contained approximately 1,000 dangerous and mostly violent inmates. Two-thirds of the population consisted of inmates serving life sentences. Working there was considered one of the toughest assignments in the criminal justice system.
It was brought to my attention that employees of this facility were speaking to a major regional newspaper. Reporters were wining and dining correctional officers.
The officers were complaining about items ranging from inadequate training to lousy recruits to salary and overall security concerns. Management had recently cut back on security assignments, known within corrections as “posts.” Posts are places in the prison where correctional officers are assigned. The number of posts within the prison affects the use of overtime. Posts were cut to reduce overtime to stay within budget.
When I heard about the reporter talking to the officers, I made inquiries to the prison’s executive staff. I was told not once, not twice, but multiple times that the complaining officers were few. I was assured over and again that a handful of employees were complaining solely because their overtime had been reduced.
Once I heard that the newspaper was continuing their extensive contacts with our employees, I was determined to head them off at the pass. I urged prison executives to contact the reporter and sit down with her to explain their point of view.
Although I was the “Director” of Public Information for Maryland’s largest agency, it was misleading. With multiple agencies, I was supposed to guide them but give them some freedom and flexibility to conduct their own affairs “if” they didn’t intrude on the operations of other agencies. If media inquiries involved the affairs of multiple agencies, I took charge of the inquiry. If I felt that agencies were making the wrong decisions, I took my appeal directly the Secretary of Public Safety. Thus in many instances, I “guided” agencies or their full-time public affairs officers rather than give them specific instructions.
A disturbance had occurred at this facility several years back that resulted in the injury of several correctional officers, some of them severely. Since then, the agency worked tirelessly with union representatives to make changes. These discussions produced positive results:
The number of inmates at the facility was dramatically reduced while concurrently the number of staff was increased.
A variety of security measures were implemented.
Assaults against staff dramatically declined.
Recommendations from outside consultants were implemented.
Staff at the prison were justifiably proud of these actions overall and more than happy to explain their position. So on one fine fall day, prison officials sat down with the reporter. She was relatively new to the paper but was being guided by a very experienced investigative editor.
They provided an hour and a half of explanation plus a one-hour tour of the facility. Although I felt that all of this was a “little too much” (I feared that she would take it as an attempt to intimidate), they did everything I asked. While unsure of what the outcome would be, I believe they did their best.
We Were Massacred
Days later, the resulting story appeared on the front page of the main section of the paper. We were massacred. It was a nasty, bloody story about how correctional officers were afraid for their lives. The article went on to say that as far as they were concerned, citizens who lived in proximity to the institution also were in danger.
A follow-up story appeared within days with members of Maryland’s General Assembly calling for hearings. The Associated Press carried the story on the state and national wires. Television and radio stations throughout the country carried the story. It was a bloody mess.
Correctional staff had been sure of their position. They had made changes. They had new data that was presented to the reporter. Staff met with the reporter and answered all of her questions, but obviously, something had gone terribly wrong.
Prison officials had done something that is very common in all bureaucracies: it had lied to itself. The newspaper chose to believe the correctional officers, not us. They offered endless examples of a facility out of control. They provided documentation. It was in the best interest of the newspaper to give a voice to staff if they wanted future cooperation and data, so some negative results were not completely unexpected.
During my follow-up conversations with the reporter, she made it clear that she was turned off by the absolutes provided by prison executives; they would not admit that staff had legitimate concerns. They told her what they told me, that complaints were the result of a few disgruntled officers and that the majority of staff was fine with the operation of the institution. Considering the number of people she spoke to, she believed the complaining staff. Employees made the better case.
It was a dangerous time for the organization because correctional executives could not see the truth; a sizeable number of employees felt that more had to be done and that the recent cuts to posts might endanger their welfare. Prison executives became their own worst enemies.
Within this context, it became easy for the reporter to write a damaging article because she perceived us to be uncaring—or worse—dishonest. So why would good, solid managers with many years of experience allowed themselves to be deceived? Maybe it had something to do with the Smoke Blowers.
The Society of Smoke Blowers
There is a well-recognized society known to public affairs professionals. I have caustically referred to mine as the “Society of Smoke Blowers.” All public affairs professionals joke about staff that get on their knees and proceed to blow smoke up each other’s derrieres until they are convinced of something that’s not true.
Those mentioned in the story I just shared with you are all good and decent people, dedicated servants of the state. They’re well educated, successful, and experienced. They are as good as or better than professionals in any organization. Yet, the Society of Smoke Blowers exists in every organization (including the media).
These are dangerous times for the organization. It seems terribly unfair to the executive staff involved. However, regardless of their dedication to their organizations or their employees, some managers seem incapable of crystal clear thinking when caught in the crosshairs of the media.
It’s tough to disagree with the Smoke Blowers. As in the story I shared, it’s often the case that there are executives who suggest that the complaining employees are few. They insist that the majority of staff surely see the improvements that management has made over the last several years. Certainly, the millions of dollars invested and positive change created could not go unnoticed, they reason. Eventually, this point of view influences others. Sometimes executive staff is too close to the subject to see things succinctly.
Some executives embrace the opinion that only a few employees were disgruntled. They are sure that problems presented to the newspaper are greatly exaggerated. Public affairs professionals see this happen time and time again.
In the story I shared, management and I seemed equally sure that reasonable discussion with the reporter would have produced a fair article.
What I Should Have Done
After the article, staff at the Office of the Secretary asked me for an explanation; others held me responsible for a solution. I asked the Secretary of Public Safety for permission to spend a day at the prison to conduct my own investigation. Obviously, something was very wrong, and I wanted to find out for myself what it was, which is what I should have done in the beginning.
The Smoke Blowers continued their ritual dance with greater intensity. They were convinced that the reporter was biased, that she was playing to the crowd, that it was easy to take the side of the “poor, downtrodden” employees against those within the big powerful bureaucracy.
I traveled to the institution and spoke with a variety of correctional officers. It was made abundantly clear to me that they were genuinely concerned about the security of the institution, and they represented the views of most staff. The elimination of security posts to reduce overtime was not the issue. The elimination of posts was symbolic of what they considered to be ongoing problems that threatened (in their opinion) the security of the institution.
Obviously, these were not just a few disgruntled employees. Quite the opposite, they seemed genuine and concerned for the security of the facility and the safety of their fellow employees.
What some within an extensive bureaucracy could not figure out, a relatively inexperienced reporter could. She had spent enough time with enough employees to believe that they were telling the truth and we were not. In her eyes, we had committed one of the greatest of sins: being less than honest, or at best not knowing the true feelings of our own employees. In either case, the reporter felt that the negative article was justified.
Some senior correctional employees had been in opposition to the Smoke Blowers all along, but they were hesitant to disagree when others embraced their point of view. After the article, they came forward with renewed vigor.
As a result of calls for hearings by members of Maryland’s General Assembly, prison executives asked for a new presentation. They were determined to offer an entirely different point of view. They were not going to be in opposition to the employees. What the employees were calling for was exactly what everyone wanted. Everyone involved, regardless of their job titles, wanted increased training, better recruits, improved salaries and enhanced security. Everyone wanted the same things.
The second article (which was written by a different reporter covering the legislative hearings) was a vast improvement over the first. It was on the front page of the newspaper and documented the fact that there was a unified call on the part of management and labor to improve the security of the institution, and to provide better training and recruitment for employees throughout the system.
It was a much better article because everyone recognized and embraced the truth. It was a better article because we took a long, hard, accurate look at ourselves. It was a much better article because we decided not to lie to or deceive ourselves, and to ban the Smoke Blowers—at least for the time being.
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].