Ten Rules for
Dealing with the Media
By Joseph E. Ryan
Public Information Director
City of Bayonne
After seventeen years in municipal government,
I have learned from experience that there are rules that municipal officials should follow when dealing with the media.
1. Tell the Truth Always answer truthfully. Unless someone’s life would be endangered by the truth, don’t lie to the press. If you lie once, they never will believe you again.
2. Answer Media Questions Unless the issue is a confidential personnel matter, an issue for the lawyers, or the subject of negotiations, give a response. If this is the case, try to explain why you can’t talk about something, at least not at the moment. Never say “no comment.” It looks as though you have something bad to hide. “No comment” is a signal to the reader that you are evil or guilty of something.
3. The Medium Is the Message Before you deal with a reporter from a particular medium, try to remember the main way in which that medium conveys the story. In the print media, the radio, and the internet, words matter most. For these media, choose your words very carefully. On television, visuals matter most. For TV, try to think of something that would offer good images. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. The negative words printed in a story never go away. The images videotaped for a TV news story cannot be erased from the viewer’s mind. They will also end up on YouTube.
About the worst thing you can do is to slam a door in a reporter’s face while the cameras are running. Door-slamming is a signal to the reader that you are guilty and have something bad to hide. This door-slamming activity is guaranteed to be shown repeatedly through multiple news cycles and on the internet. Unless you want to become an infamous figure for millions of TV viewers in New Jersey and surrounding states, don’t ever slam the door in a reporter’s face while the TV cameras are running. For TV, remember that dramatic is bad and boring is better. Fortunately, most municipal employees have no interest in becoming the evil stars of the nightly news.
4 Use the Internet Post your press releases on your municipal website and/or government access cable TV station. If your website can e-mail your statements directly to subscribers free of charge, do it. In that way, your message is out there to counter negative bloggers.
If you don’t have electronic media available, get them. Offer free e-mail subscriptions to the announcements posted on the website, so that people can receive news directly from you. Use your cable provider’s community bulletin board to issue emergency announcements to people who do not watch your municipal station.
In carefully chosen situations, such as during natural disasters, you may need to use robo-calls to get your message directly to the public. Take advantage of such social media as Twitter and Facebook, and remember to think before you post.
5. Designate a Spokesperson Municipalities need to have clearly designated spokespeople and a
system for responding to media inquiries or referring them to the appropriate parties.
6. Learn the Deadline Always ask reporters what their deadlines are and then tell them you will call them back. In that way, you will know how much time you have to develop responses to their questions. Knowing how much time you have gives you the opportunity to consult with your municipal colleagues about an appropriate response to media inquiries.
7. Expect the Unexpected The most likely unexpected thing to happen is that someone in municipal government will leak a story to the media. When this happens, use all of the above tips. Just remember that you will have to use all of them quickly and suddenly.
It is not the reporter’s fault that he or she has received leaked information. It’s the fault of one of your colleagues who is either trying to look important or trying to advance a personal agenda. You have to understand that reporters receive leaks on a regular basis.
8. Respond Quickly to Errors If you see something wrong and outrageous in the media, and you want to respond, do so quickly. Call the reporter or the editor responsible within 24 hours. Explain to him or her why the headline or story was wrong. Ask for a correction and/or demand a rapid right of reply in the paper, on the web, or on the next broadcast, depending on the medium in which the problem appeared.
9. Be Polite In an emergency, journalists will generally share an interest in getting your information out to the public. Stay cool. It’s not attractive to get cranky with the media. Remember you will have to deal with these reporters again and must retain their good will.
10. Be Prepared Stay well-informed throughout a crisis. Do not become isolated. Make sure that the local cable TV company provides your office with a free cable hook-up, so that you can watch live coverage of the emergency. Be sure that your municipal building has a back-up generator. Also keep an eye on Internet-based news services. You need to know at least as much as your best-informed constituents.
Expect the next crisis to come sooner rather than later. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security. Managing emergencies is a crucial part of our responsibilities as public officials, as Hurricane Sandy reminded us.
Dealing with the media is a constant responsibility. The bad news is that there will always be negative headlines to overcome. The good news is that each day brings another news cycle and a chance for a new beginning.
If you follow the rules outlined above, you will increase your chances for success. You must remember, though, that there is never a guarantee of success. We are often at the mercy of events, need a lot of luck, and must always learn from experience.
First Published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 90, Number 3, March 2013