Working with the news media is part of being an elected official. It will not always be pleasant, especially when the subject matter deals with bad news, natural disaster, crime, loss of a business, or misconduct of public officials.
As an elected official you must provide leadership in a professional manner by using the media to publicize important information. It is not just what you say but also how you say it. Your dress, body language, and tone will convey as much or more than your actual words.
The relationship between elected officials and the news media
For elected officials, the news media can make or break a politician. Elected officials need the media to help disseminate important information. They also need the media to portray them in a positive light to their constituents.
The media needs access to elected officials to get first-hand information for their readers.They don’t want to be “scooped” by their competition. To some extent, the media needs working relationships with elected officials to develop sources.
These goals are a double-edged sword creating an uneasy alliance that breaks down from time to time.
Why do conflicts arise?
Conflicts generally arise for the following reasons:
- An elected official feels he or she has been misrepresented in a harmful manner by the media.
- The media exposes incompetent, unethical or illegal behavior on the part of an elected official or part of his or her administration.
- The media feel they have been purposely misled by an elected official.
- The media feel they have been purposely left out of a story or denied access to people or information.
Tips for effectively interacting with the media
So, how can you, as an elected official effectively interact with the media so information is disseminated in an accurate, timely fashion? The following tips are by no means exhaustive but should give you an idea of the basic dynamics of working with the media.
Form good relationships
Having good relationships with those around you is an important part of effective leadership. This includes the media.
There is a difference between relationship and friendship and an elected official needs to understand the distinction. Reporters want to get the story first and foremost. They understand that the odds of getting that story are better if they have access to you.
However, your relationship with a journalist does not mean that he/she will not run something negative about you, your administration, or your community just because you are friends. The relationship a reporter has with you is secondary to their job. Your relationship with them should be founded on the same principles.
Go “off-the-record” when necessary
When you and a reporter agree to go “off the record,” the reporter agrees not to use the information you provide until you say it is okay or he verifies the information independently and does not attribute it to you.
Going “off the record” can be very helpful in cases where something is not readily apparent that impacts decisions you have to make. Giving information to reporters that lends context to a story but for which you don’t want to be quoted requires going “off-the-record.” This information may have to do with respecting the confidentiality of a prospective new business or briefing a reporter on an upcoming drug sweep that, if it were made public early, would tip off the drug dealers.
You and the journalist must agree to be “off the record” BEFORE giving any information. You cannot ask a reporter, after the fact, not to us things you have already said. This is a critical mistake.
If you are not sure whether to trust a reporter with an “off the record” conversation, you may want to first float an “off the record” trial balloon with non-critical information and see if the reporter keeps his or her word.
Use press releases to disseminate information
Press releases are a good way to get information out in an organized, timely manner. Write a press release ahead of time to reduce the risk of giving misstated or factually wrong information. Generally a press release will be one page.
A good press release will contain the following:
- A header listing the office responsible for the release, the subject of the release (headline), date, and contact information.
- A headline that clearly states why the press release is newsworthy. Example: City Receives $500,000 Grant for New Police Cars.
- The body should contain the information you wish to convey in the order of importance.. The first paragraph should contain the who, what, when, why and where of the story. The last paragraph should include information on whom to contact for more details.
- Most press releases end with ### or -30- centered at the bottom of the page to indicate the end of the information.
- You can get more tips on writing an effective press release at: https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2014/jul/14/how-to-write-press-release
Be prepared when holding a press conference
If the information you want to convey is too long for a press release, you should hold a press conference.
Press conferences are more interactive then press releases. Press conferences often include taking questions from the media or other people in attendance.
The following are some general guidelines for press conferences.
- Schedule the timing of your press conference to allow local media to meet their deadlines. Most newspapers go to print several hours before the paper hits the streets.
For example, if your community newspaper goes to print at 11:30 every morning, hold your press conference early in the morning.
Poor scheduling will cause bad blood between City Hall and the newspaper as well as delay the information getting to your citizens. If the issue is important enough for a press conference, then it requires timely delivery to your citizens.
- Choose an appropriate location for your press conference. It should be large enough for the anticipated audience and well lit. It should also match the tone and subject matter of the information you want to convey.
- If you expect more than one TV station to attend, provide some accommodations. Consider including small risers for their cameras, a common audio feed or “snake,” and reserved parking.
- Have a podium for notes and radio/television microphones.
- Decide who needs to be near or at the podium to answer questions. Do this by considering the flow of the press conference.
General Do’s and Don’t’s When Dealing with the Media
- Make eye contact when answering questions.
- Use talking points rather than a word-for-word script whenever possible.
- Use visuals and handouts to emphasize important points.
- Prepare for the interview by asking some questions about the interviewer, context, subjects, duration, and format. Consider the following questions: who will conduct the interview, which subjects will be covered, what is the context of the story, what is the format for the interview, and what is the duration of the interview.
- Offer to get information you don’t have or don’t know.
- Never Lie — ever. It will come back to haunt you.
- Do Not lose your temper or argue publicly with the media.
- Do Not overwhelm your audience or media with too many facts and statistics.
- Never give “no comment” as an answer. If you don’t know or can’t say the answer, state that.
You will need to be as relaxed, sincere, truthful, and humble as possible. Be in command when speaking in an official capacity to the media and the community.
Authored by Jeffrey Rupp and Merrill Warkentin, Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University
About the Author
Jeffrey Rupp is the former mayor of Columbus, Mississippi. Mayor Rupp wrote a weekly newspaper column for the Sunday edition. His column covered community issues; he was not permitted to edit the column.
Rupp was the Vice President of News for Imes Communications prior to serving as mayor. In that capacity he reported and anchored daily newscasts at the CBS affiliate in Columbus and oversaw news operations for several other television stations around the country.
Jeffrey has vast experience covering elected officials including the presidential primaries in New Hampshire as well as on the state and local level. He also produced mayoral, congressional, lieutenant governor and gubernatorial debates in Mississippi. Jeffrey has conducted seminars in working with the media for elected and appointed officials throughout Mississippi.
He has an undergraduate degree in communications from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has a Masters in public policy and administration from Mississippi State University.
He has also completed programs of study at the University of Oklahoma’s Economic Development Institute and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Currently he is the Director of the Technology Resource Institute at MSU, a federally funded University Center that leverages university resources to help businesses across the state.