3 Keys to Successful Media Relations for Federal Communicators

NOTE: This post is sponsored by the Federal Communicators Network (FCN)

Many feds are not fond of the press.

In nightmares, feds worry about the programs they steward ending up “on the front page of the Washington Post,” with program weaknesses perhaps magnified by inaccurate reporting.

However, as a government communicator it may be your job to “tame the beast” and obtain positive media coverage for your agency. Here are three keys for doing so:

1) Humanize It

People are the key to successful agency communications with media. It’s important to recognize that reporters are people too.

How much do you know about those in media who cover your agency? Moreover, how do you ensure that government-media relations are non-adversarial and mutually beneficial?

A good start is by proactively forging positive relationships.

Get to know journalists on a basic human level. This goes a long way toward building mutual respect, good will and trust, essential elements of any good relationship.

Forget about the “us versus them” mentality. Rather, get out of the trenches and meet reporters face-to-face. Get to know them.

Meet up with journalists for coffee or lunch. Visit their newsroom. Give them a tour of your agency and introduce them to the major players.

Express genuine interest in a reporter. Find out some basic information which may lead to things in common.

Where did the reporter go to college? What’s their home town? How did they get into journalism? Do they think their supervisor a jerk, like some you might have experienced? Find that common ground.

Personalizing the government-media relationship allows each party to view the other as an individual rather than as an adversarial institution.

Forging successful media relations begins with humanizing it.

(Who in media do you personally know? How well do you know them?)

2) Be Accessible

Government media relations is not a 9-to-5 job. That’s why always being accessible to the press pays off.

Today’s hyper-paced digital age means that news is breaking around the clock. If you work in a public affairs shop, it’s your job to help your agency be responsive to reporters.

Journalists don’t want to get voicemail when they call you on deadline. Moreover, you don’t want your agency cited in a story as being unreachable or unresponsive, which is embarrassing.

Even though your official work day may technically be over at a time certain, reporters may still need your help. The reporter is depending on you — the agency media contact — to be there, even after hours.

Therefore, provide influential reporters with a way to reach you at all times. Yes, that means you may be interrupted at home on a work night, or over the weekend. But, as a government communicator, it should be paramount that your agency is portrayed fairly and accurately in the press. That’s your job.

Accessibility builds trust and yields dividends. Being inaccessible creates animosity and frustration, which may result in bad press and factual inaccuracies.

(Robert Redford & Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein inAll the President’s Men)

3) Be Transparent

As a government communicator, don’t ever forget the critically important role of a free press in an open society. In that sense, your agency should be providing more information to the press and public than it withholds. Government should strive to be as transparent as possible. Of course, the media play an important role in this process.

Although government does not work for the media, it must work with the media. Reporters should have a sense at the micro-level that you, as the media contact, are working with them, not against them — whether real or perceived.

Being transparent means going the extra mile for reporters, even if that means occasionally rocking the boat internally to get the facts out.

For example:

  • Don’t withhold information unless it’s absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t make a reporter file a FOIA request for data you are able to provide without one.
  • Don’t ever lie to reporters because trust is difficult to regain. Further, as the old saying goes, the cover up is usually worse than the crime.

If you’re wrong or don’t know something, admit it. If you cannot fulfill a media request, explain why. If you can’t speak on-the-record, then go off-the-record or suggest other sources for information.

Let reporters know up front that you won’t be able to meet their deadline, if that’s the case, or arrange an interview with the right person by a requested date.

If you must get negative information out, then do so quickly and all at once, rather than creating the drip-drip-drip effect of sharing bad info piecemeal over time. That only results in more bad press.

Being transparent means being honest, open and forthcoming with reporters. This builds respect and goodwill in the short-term, as well as over the long run.

In essence, remember that successful media relations often hinge on personal relationships.


* This post first appeared as a guest blog for the Federal Communicators Network

Also check out:

Talking to Reporters: 10 Tips

Media Relations: Shaping the Story

State of Gov-Media Relations: Irreconcilable Differences?

Conducting Media Interviews: 10 Tips

Media Relations: Don’t Comment with “No Comment”

** All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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Dave Hebert

Good stuff, David — as I’ve said elsewhere, relationship-building is gigantic when it comes to success in this realm, but it doesn’t seem to be explicitly emphasized so much as it is treated as a matter of common sense. My experience is that it needs to be deliberately developed on comm/PR staff.

Dannielle Blumenthal

There are a couple of caveats though.

–there is a fine line between humanizing yourself/forging relationship and brown-nosing

–reporters don’t know the meaning of work/life balance so if you promise 24/7 accessibility, be prepared

–transparency is not black and white (there are levels) and it’s not something you personally can promise, rather it is something that your organization promises and must approve.

As always all opinions are my own.

David B. Grinberg

Dannielle & Dave:

Thanks so much for the insightful feedback, in addition to all of your exemplary work at FCN — for which you deserve many accolades (Britt too).

In essence, my take is that traditional media will remain influential, even as convergence continues to digital, mobile and social platforms.

Moreover, fewer traditional media outlets – due to the extinction of most newspapers and magazines – will mean that the ones which ultimately survive and thrive in the Digital Age will be even more influential (with broader reach through digital/social/mobile channels).

Old media — including the Associated Press, NY Times and Wall Street Journal, for example — will remain the trusted sole sources for real investigative long-form journalism, regardless of “pay walls” for digital content.

Thus beefing up relationships with influential old school journalists will still pay off in the long run if gov communicators want to leverage media relations to obtain positive press for Uncle Sam.

David B. Grinberg

DAVE: regarding your comments, I’ve found over the years that “common sense” is not always so common in government. Moreover, traditional media relations need to be appropriately balanced against over reliance on digital and social media, including the rumor-plagued blogosphere. Ultimately, the public will still want just-the-facts laid out as objectively as possible by trusted old media.

Therefore, as you astutely point out, enhancing relationships with real reporters “needs to be deliberately developed on comm/PR staff.” This is especially important as younger generations of gov communicators enter the workforce, because they will be less familiar with the totality of media relations per old versus new media.

Both old and new media are still equally important in my opinion and will remain so for quite some time. Nevertheless, as time marches on, the balance of power between new and old media will be more fluid as the information landscape further evolves with new and unforeseen technologies.

David B. Grinberg

Dannielle: excellent points about transparency. All gov agencies, in general, need to practice more than they preach – and there has sure been a lot of preaching these days.

I also agree with you about not blatantly “kissing up” to reporters. Nevertheless, human relations matter and goodwill often begets goodwill in the gov-media relationship – which sure beats the other way around.

Regarding work-life balance, I’ve found that it’s always best to insure the story is correct at the outset – to the extent possible — rather than having to scramble to obtain corrections and retractions the next morning.

No gov communicator wants to be “taken to the woodshed” by the agency head or executive management because of bad or inaccurate press coverage that could have been avoided through greater accessibility after gov business hours.

I’ll admit that providing personal “after hours” access to influential reporters does have drawbacks. I recall times when I’ve had back-and-forth conversations with reporters on deadline during my commute home from work, as well as late into the evenings and on weekends.

Why? Their editors still had questions the reporters could not answer, or they needed to double check quotes, stats and facts. If you are in charge of agency media relations then it’s your butt on the line.

The only time I did not return a call occurred when a NY Times reporter left a message on my mobile number while I was on vacation with my wife in the Caribbean.

Still, this reporter did not forget my non-response, even though my colleagues were on hand back at the agency HQ.

Dave Hebert


Important point about relationships with traditional media: The good content/reporting we all babble and pontificate about in blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.? It’s still being produced by a relatively small group of real journalists. Objective, true fourth-estate journalism is becoming a evermore precious resource.

Lorrie Andrew-Spear

Mostly good advice, but did you really just advise people top go “off the record” with a reporter?!? “If you can’t speak on-the-record, then go off-the-record or suggest other sources for information.” There is no such thing as off the record anymore. Gone are the days when media and government wre “in it together” and you could trust a media representative with anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to know. I’m all about helping the reporter find the correct agency to answer the question (which is often not mine) because I want to be helpul, and I’m often curious about the outcome, too, but going “off the record” is never an option for me.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the comment, Lorrie, I appreciate your personal perspective.

I agree that being cautious and deliberate with reporters is always a good idea, especially with journos you really don’t know well and have not had a chance to work with. Still, it’s important to recall that not all reporters are out to burn you and most comply with professional journalism best practices and industry standards.

To clarify about off-the-record, my personal advice is that gov communicators should only go off-the-record as a last resort to point key reporters in the right direction on major stories, as appropriate.

Contrary to your statement, I would argue that professional journalists do honor the attribution under which sources speak, whether it’s on background, off-the-record, etc. Just remember to state the type of attribution up front before the conversation starts — not afterwards.

Moreover, it’s been my experience over two decades that seasoned reporters do take professional journalism standards very seriously. Some reporters have even bucked the judicial system by going to jail for refusing to reveal confidential sources during litigation or per a judge’s order.

If a gov communicator is concerned about being burned by a reporter, then definitely be careful what you say and how you say it. Again, make sure to reiterate upfront the specific attribution under which you are speaking and/or put the reporter in touch with a subject matter expert (SME).

Remember that going the extra mile to forge positive media relationships builds mutual trust and goodwill –something which is needed today more than ever, particularly with the proliferation of non-traditional online media that may choose to report so-called “infotainment” over substantive news, and/or put stories out before all the facts are known and confirmed.

Henry Brown

Question. Teleworking employees and the press?

For the last 10 years of my career I teleworked ~1000 miles from the “office”/supervisor/press officer, did not ever get good feel on how I should deal with the press especially on issues that had nothing to do with my functions within OPM especially when dealing with the national press.

Perhaps because my office was ~1000 miles (5 states) away had no problem dealing with the local press especially when talking about non work related subjects. One of my neighbors, for awhile, was a reporter on a local TV station, and when events occurred that impacted us as neighbors we would talk at because I was fairly good at communicating, would find myself being quoted on the evening news once every 3 or 4 months. At no time do I ever recall stating whom my employer was, nor did I ever discuss issues that would/could have had any impact on my agency.

After getting quoted (with picture) in the Washington Post, while discussing the pay of federal employees as compared to contractors, got in some level of hot water because I had not gotten permission from my supervisor for the interview. Made it somewhat worse when I “sorta” fought back by indicating that I dealt with the media regularly with non govermental issues…

My question is was my supervisor or I off base?

Henry Brown

As the Federal Communicator’s Network figured out some sort of guidelines for social media communications with the media, other than NOT openly identifing your self as a federal employee and NOT using Work time/resources to communicate with the news media?