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Working with the Media

Some Relationship Advice

Len Melisurgo
By Len Melisurgo
Local News Editor, The Star Ledger
man holding his hand out to shake hands with someone

Sometimes the relationship is friendly and peaceful. Other times it gets so strained and contentious that even Dr. Phil can’t do anything to stop the feuding.

We’re not talking Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Or John Mayer and Jessica Simpson.

It’s the age-old, love-hate relationship between the news media and government officials. It may seem hard to believe, but one group can’t live without the other. After all, it’s really a two-way street.

The news media needs government officials to generate stories, to inform the public about how their tax dollars are being spent, and to shed light on programs and policies. At the same time, government officials need the news media to help spread the word about everything from campaign platforms, to redevelopment plans, to programs and policies.

Does it have to be a bad relationship?

I’m no Dr. Phil, but I can offer a few suggestions on improving this strained union:

Make a Fresh Start Just like boxers shake hands at the start of a heavyweight bout (just as they’re ready to bash each other into a pulp), reporters and public officials should make a concerted effort to get along, especially at the start of their relationship—when a mayor takes the oath of office, or when a reporter starts a new beat.

Both parties should set up an informal meeting or, ideally, multiple meetings, to talk. Meetings like this are more productive if they take place in town hall or in a newsroom, rather than a diner or a coffee shop. Why? Because it gives each person a good sense of what the other person’s job entails.

A reporter gets to see the flurry of activity in town hall, and perhaps gets to meet key officials, like the town business administrator, the municipal clerk, the police chief and other department heads. And a mayor gets a glimpse of what a newsroom in 2010 looks like and, maybe, get a better understanding of how a newspaper or magazine operates.

This is a great opportunity for a mayor and a reporter to get to know each other, to talk about major initiatives that are high on a mayor’s agenda, to get an understanding of a reporter’s workload and coverage area, the types of stories his media organization tends to pursue.

Keep in mind, many reporters, particularly those at small daily newspapers and larger newspapers that have been hit hard by layoffs and buyouts, are responsible for covering several towns. They cannot focus on your town every day. And some reporters at weekly newspapers have to crank out six or seven stories on deadline every week—and also shoot photos, crop photos, lay out pages and update their websites. They don’t have as much time, or space, as they used to have to pursue every story.

Keep Your Distance One thing to keep in mind: Reporters are not your friends.

Yes, some reporters are very friendly and outgoing—maybe even quite intelligent—and might act like they’re your friend. But they’ll press as hard as possible to get a good story. They’ll dig for documents. They’ll talk to your employees in town hall. They’ll call your neighbors—whatever it takes to confirm the facts. After all, that’s their job.

Other reporters will be pushy and, perhaps, arrogant and demanding. Your first reaction might be to slam down your phone and run for the hills. But a better reaction would be to give the reporter a fair shake. Closely read the reporter’s articles, and make an honest assessment of whether he or she is being fair, balanced and accurate—before you complain.

Set Some Ground Rules Whenever you talk to anyone from the news media, whether it’s a cub reporter at a weekly newspaper or a veteran reporter at a large radio station, make sure you set some ground rules before you start spitting out your words. If you want to say something off the record, make sure you and the reporter both are completely clear on what that means.

Surprisingly, many reporters and public officials have different interpretations of “off the record,” talking “on background,” talking on “deep background,” or using a quote or information “without attribution.”

If your goal is to explain a complex policy or a sensitive personnel issue and you don’t want to be quoted or named in the article, make sure you clearly express that to the reporter—before you start talking. Also, don’t be afraid to ask a reporter to read back a quote to make sure it’s accurate. And ask the reporter how he or she will keep your identity confidential. (e.g., “according to a high-ranking official who did not want to be identified because the matter is still under investigation.”)

You might not want to hear this, but it’s actually fair game for reporters to use any quotes or sound bites they get from you if no ground rules are agreed upon in advance. That’s why it’s in your best interest to set the rules before the reporter starts writing or turns on his microphone.

Make Yourself Accessible With the explosion of technology continuing at a rapid-fire pace, we’re living in a far different world today than just five or 10 years ago. This makes it tougher for you to hide from reporters. And you shouldn’t.

Once again, it’s in your best interest to let your side be heard, especially if there’s some sort of crisis or controversy erupting in your town. If a reporter calls you for a comment, it’s actually better to say something than to hide or say “no comment.” The public—the newspaper readers, the Internet bloggers, the taxpayers who pay your salary—often perceive “no comment” as “I’m guilty” or “I’m hiding something.”

If there is an emergency in your town, perhaps a pipeline explosion, a fatal shooting or a big fire, make yourself accessible to the news media. The bigger the emergency, the bigger the media contingent will be. Make sure you are prepared to deal with the crush of TV news trucks, video cameras and radio reporters.

Expect to get bombarded with questions, and be prepared to answer them. If you don’t know the answer to a particular question, defer to someone who does—perhaps a fire chief or an emergency management coordinator.

Admit Your Mistakes If you or someone in your administration happens to do something wrong, it’s better to be honest and admit you made a mistake.

This is another case where the general public will respect you more—and likely forgive you—if they perceive you as someone who is telling the truth.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, honesty is the best policy.

Don’t Twist Statistics Perhaps you’re up for re-election and you want to announce to the world that you and your police department are doing a terrific job keeping the crime rate down. So, you call a press conference and you make the announcement. You even release some statistics that appear to back up your story. Bad move. Don’t do it unless you are certain the crime rate—not just the overall crime rate, but the stats in all the major crime categories of the State Police Uniform Crime Report—actually went down.

Some public officials, it seems, think they can pull a wool over the media’s eyes by spurting out all sorts of impressive stats. Just keep in mind, good reporters will challenge the stats. And they’ll dig for additional stats that could prove you wrong.

If your overall crime rate really did go down last year, but your violent crimes (murders, rapes and robberies) went up, you might end up embarrassing yourself by touting your success in fighting crime.

Learn the Laws Public officials don’t have to be legal scholars, but they should make an effort to learn the laws regarding access to public information and the Open Public Records Act, known as the “Sunshine Law.”

Mayors, municipal clerks, and planning and zoning board clerks should know what constitutes a public record and what the ground rules are for releasing public documents. Also, municipal council members should know when it’s legal, and illegal, to meet behind closed doors.
Good knowledge of these laws could help avoid legal disputes.

Excuse Our Absence Unfortunately, news reporters can’t be everywhere—particularly in this age of media staff cuts, mergers and shutdowns. So don’t be shocked if you hold a big groundbreaking ceremony for your new sewage treatment plant and no reporters show up to see you stepping on an oversized, gold-plated shovel and smiling for your local-access cable camera and a handful of well-dressed construction executives (who also are stepping on oversized, gold-plated shovels and smiling).

That’s not to say never hold a press conference. Just don’t expect the same kind of attention you would have gotten a decade ago, when newsrooms were a lot more full.

It’s not that reporters and editors don’t care about important things going on in your town. In fact, some newspapers—even some larger ones like The Star-Ledger—have expanded their community news sections during recent years. Some have created special “hyperlocal” websites to expand their coverage of local news, sports and events. So, sometimes there is a place for your press release about your annual Senior Citizen Valentine Walker-Wheelchair Dance, or free rabies vaccinations for cats and dogs.

You just have to ask. And if you have developed a good working relationship with the reporters covering your town, you might have a better shot at getting what you want.

Remember, it’s a two-way street.


Len Melisurgo is a local news editor, and former municipal reporter, for The Star-Ledger.


This article appeared in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 87, Number 4, April 2010

 

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