March 21, 2016 by Tony Scott
Dealing with the media for the first time? A few tips
I’ve been a professional journalist for the past 16 years, and I can tell when I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t deal with the news media on a regular basis. If you’re a new elected official or entering the world of local government for the first time, I have a few tips on dealing with your local newspaper, news website, radio station or other media outlet.
- Establish a rapport with your local media representative. Whether this means having coffee with them on occasion or just giving them a call to check in, it always helps to remind your media contact that you a., are a human being and b., still exist.
- Maybe it’s off-the-record, maybe it isn’t. You’ve heard the term off-the-record before, but what does it really mean? Well, if you have a media contact that you trust, and you have some information you want to give them but you don’t want it published, or you don’t want it to come from you, you can tell them beforehand that you would like your conversation to be off-the-record. However – and this is a big however – nothing is ever truly off-the-record. If you really don’t want the information to “get out,” then don’t tell it to the reporter. Again, it all depends on the trust and comfort level you have with your media contact. You now see how this tip relates to the first tip about establishing a rapport. I can tell you from a reporter’s perspective, we do value our relationships with our sources, and we would not want to breach a source’s trust by disclosing off-the-record information. Once we breach a source’s trust, it’s tough to get it back. So information – and trust – is a two-way street.
- Another point on off-the-record information. Look, realize that a reporter is gathering information. That is his or her job. As much as they enjoy conversing with you, it does them no good when they have information but can’t – or shouldn’t – publish that information. So, give them as much information as you are comfortable giving them.
- Keep it simple, please. Sometimes people who aren’t used to dealing with the media will try to use flowery language or will try to come up with the “best” quotes instead of just giving the reporter the information they need. Instead, you should keep it simple, stupid (KISS) as the saying goes. That doesn’t mean meaningless soundbites. It just means, stick to the issues at hand, stay concise, and use plain language that most people would recognize. And that brings us to….
- Try to stay away from acronyms. Some acronyms are commonly known, but if you’re dealing with a reporter for a publication that isn’t for a niche audience or a specific industry, use plain language instead of industry acronyms or jargon. Or if you do use an acronym, spell it out first so the reporter knows what the heck it is. Instead of saying “IDOT wants us to use this ITEP money…,” say “The Illinois Department of Transportation wants us to use this Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program money…” and maybe even explain what ITEP funding is.
Those are just a few tips for those who are starting out in the communications or public relations business for someone who’s been there. I hope this helps. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be on the other side (aka, the Dark Side). Thanks for reading!