"He tells the best truth possible under the circumstances." This was legendary Washington reporter Cheryl Arvidson's off-hand (and slightly back-handed) assessment of my performance as a press secretary, delivered to a beach-house full of fellow reporters.
I took no offense. Indeed, it pretty accurately summed things up.
Handling media relations, whether for a politician, a corporation or an NGO is not for the faint of heart. Or the weak of stomach -- I always tell new-to-the-job media relations specialists to lay in a supply of Maalox. And go easy on the Scotch.
Media relations can be a great job, but it is not for everyone. All this comes to mind as our newly minted graduate takes up a position in media relations with agro-giant Cargill, North America's largest privately held firm. On the one hand, my spouse and I want to congratulate him; on the other, we wonder if he shouldn't have gone into something less fraught with danger, like bomb disposal or elevator surfing.
Knowing that no self-respecting son or daughter would ever take advice from a parent, I sought it on his behalf from others -- namely Rob McLeod, recently retired after nearly 20 years as spokesperson for CIBC; Barbara Shecter, veteran business reporter with the National Post; and Tom Boyle, a long-time Ford Motor PR pro who now teaches business communications at Georgia State.
Here's what they said:
Rob McLeod: Three things come immediately to mind:
Patience: Patience is a valuable quality in media relations, particularly when you are facing a challenging issue involving the organization or individual you represent. No matter how much the media -- or your boss -- may press for a rapid response to a breaking issue, it is far better to gather all the facts before issuing a comment. It is very difficult to restore credibility with the media or the public when you have to reverse an earlier response.
Serenity: Calmness in the eye of the storm is another key attribute. When organizations or individuals are under fire, emotions inside can run high. Establishing yourself as a source of reasoned, sound advice to management, able to deliver factual but effective public positioning, will enhance your reputation among colleagues, management and reporters.
Perspective: Having strong relationships with the media is very important and will help get your message out. But being friendly with reporters doesn't mean they won't be tough on your organization when they believe it is justified. Like you, they are professionals trying to do a job, which is to report the facts as they understand them. Recognizing that and maintaining good relationships with reporters through good times and bad is the key to longevity in media relations.
Barbara Shecter: Barb naturally approached things from a reporter's perspective:
First, meet as soon as possible with reporters that cover your sector to gauge areas of real/potential interest, plus, importantly, establish the rules of engagement in terms of the type of background conversations you can have to give reporters maximum context (without of course endangering confidentiality.)
Second, try to give reporters as much notice as possible about potentially interesting upcoming news or events to allow them to not only plan their schedules, but also pitch the story idea to editors.
Third, find out the best way to keep in touch to keep the reporter on top of developing/ongoing stories. In today's world many reporters are seldom at their desks -- email and texting can often be preferable to a telephone call. But it varies by reporter -- one size or solution does not fit all.
Tom Boyle: Drawing on years of practice and academic study, he offers up the following:
"Your credibility is the biggest thing you bring to the party. When a news person tries to reach you with a question on a possibly harmful topic, respond quickly. You likely won't have the answer immediately, but the promptness of your getting back will create media chatter than you appear to have reporter's interests in mind," Boyle says.
Another tip: "When you come across information that doesn't benefit your client but might help a beat reporter, call them to share the info. Telling them something useful to them that's not related to advancing your client's interests will be appreciated -- and remembered."
Boyle also recommends thorough follow-up: "Call or email the reporter after you have provided information but before the story appears to make sure he or she got all they needed. Whenever possible, also contact the reporter after the story appears to say well done. And think about sending the reporter a hand-written note once in awhile. In this day of email and texting, a hand-written note via the mail will stun and amaze!"
Would I add anything?
Two thoughts come to mind.
First, make sure the culture and values of the organization are aligned with your own. This doesn't mean you have to agree with everything -- I didn't agree with every position taken by Bob Dole or Ed Brooke when I acted as their press secretary or every position taken by Ford, IBM, CAE, CIBC or Canada Post during my tenure -- but if the mismatch is too great, there's not enough Maalox in the world to make it worthwhile. And never be afraid to walk away. Your reputation is more important than any paycheque.
Second, think of yourself as the eyes and ears of the organization. Communications flows two ways -- reporters can often serve as an early warning system in terms of potential issues and problems, as well as areas of opportunity. Transmitting this information back to your organization can help them avoid future issues...or exploit competitive opportunities. Never be timid about delivering needed messages to senior staff.
Good luck, Joseph. Remember, there's always bomb disposal to fall back on...or an opening in Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's office.