3 Rules for Gov Communicators to Master Media Relations (Part II)

Fostering effective media relations can be a challenging endeavor for anyone, including public sector communicators. This is due, in large part, to a history of adversarial relations between government and the so-called Fourth Estate.

Thus it’s essential for government communicators to break down this firewall and build bridges instead. With this in mind, you should adhere to the following three basic rules to master media relations:

1) Humanize It

2) Be Accessible

3) Be Transparent

Last week I focused on the significance of humanizing media relations. To reiterate, try to forge mutually beneficial relationships with journalists. Meet in-person with key reporters who cover your agency. Let them know that you are an official point of contact and available to assist them. This will plant the seeds for a positive relationship that will grow over time.

  • Takeaway: mastering media relations begins with positive relationships.

Rule #2: Be Accessible

Being accessible to the media should be standard operating procedure if you are an agency spokesperson, public affairs specialist, or otherwise authorized to speak to the press.

Today’s hyper-paced mobile, digital and virtual Information Age means that news is breaking around the clock world-wide. Many reporters are always on deadline and expect your agency to be responsive to their inquiries.

Remember that reporters don’t want to receive a voice message when they call you, or a bounce back email stating you’re out of the office, etc. You don’t want your agency cited in a story as being unreachable or unresponsive, which is embarrassing and unprofessional.

Moreover, even though your official work day may technically end at a time certain, reporters may still need your help. They are depending on you – as an agency media contact – to be accessible after hours.

Thus it’s essential to provide key 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. However, what’s paramount is that your agency is portrayed fairly and accurately in the press.

  • Takeaway: accessibility builds trust and yields dividends. Being inaccessible creates animosity and frustration, which may result in poor media relations, bad press and factual errors about your agency.

Rule #3: Be Transparent

Government communicators should always strive to be as open and transparent as possible with the press — as appropriate within your agency’s media/legal/ethical guidelines.

It’s helpful to recall the critically important role of a free press in a democratic society. In that sense, your agency should generally be providing more information to the media than it withholds (unless doing so is statutorily prohibited or may threaten national security, etc.).

Although government does not work for the media, public sector agencies must work with the media. Reporters should have a sense at the micro level that you are working with them, not against them. Try to convey the concept of help me help you.

Being transparent means going the extra mile for reporters, even if that occasionally results in rocking the boat internally. For example:

  • Don’t withhold information unless it’s absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t make a reporter file a FOIA request for data if you are able to provide it without one.
  • Don’t ever lie to reporters because trust and credibility are difficult to regain. Plus, lying will hurt you as much as it hurts your agency (maybe more).
  • If you’re wrong or don’t know something, just admit it — don’t hide or give misinformation.
  • If you cannot fulfill a media request by a specified time, at tell a reporter why.
  • If you can’t speak on-the-record, provide information on background or off-the-record. You can also suggest other sources to reporters.

Also, if you must get negative information out in a crisis, then do so quickly and all at once. Don’t risk creating the “drip-drip-drip” effect of sharing bad news piecemeal over days or weeks. This will only result in more bad press coverage and worsen media relations.

  • Takeaway: 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.

Adhering to these three basic rules will result in more effective media relations for your agency, as well as the public sector generally — which may also help rebuild trust in government.


* A similar version of this post first appeared in the Federal Communicators Network (FCN) blog in May 2013.

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*** All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector or private sector employer, organization or political entity.

David Grinberg is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Ryan Arba

I’ve never worked in PR directly but I was pretty close as a leg analyst for a state department. Time delays can create more headaches than they are worth. I fully agree that it’s far better to just be honest and transparent up front rather than having 5 meetings discuss how to spin the message. Plus, the public deserves better than to be mislead.

One problem that I’ve observed is the problem is less about an individual’s ethics and more about an agency’s “cover your ass” culture. In a CYA culture, people are only penalized for bad work and almost never congratulated for good work. So, over time, individuals in an organization tend to delay telling bad news as long as possible. It leads to a vicious cycle of coverups that, in the long run, don’t benefit anyone.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for sharing your important insights, Ryan, which are appreciated.

You hit on a significant and sensitive point: gov bureaucracy should not supersede transparency. If the public sector wants to rebuild public trust than it is incumbent upon all gov communicators to abide by the recommended rules I laid out — which are based upon two decades of experience as a gov communicator.

The “CYA” culture you mention speaks volumes about what’s wrong with government in general. Too many public sector employees can be more concerned with pleasing officious micromanagers and supervisors than being forthright with the citizenry for whom they work.

Moreover, I agree there’s too much of the “blame game” in government generally and not enough accountability at the top. This is an unfortunate factor in too many public sector agencies. More managers and supervisors should heed the wise words of Benjamin Franklin (paraphrasing): I will speak ill of no one and all the good I know of everyone.

The bottom line, as you clearly state is this, “The public deserves better than to be misled.”

Lorrie Andrew-Spear

I agree with most of this. However, I will say again that I would not counsel most folks to do this:

“If you can’t speak on-the-record, provide information on background or off-the-record.”

I truly believe that if you “cannot go on the record” then there is a good reason for that, and you should keep your knowledge to yourself and let whoever IS qualified to go “on the record” make any comments to the media — even if YOU really don’t see any reason why you can’t release the information. Maybe there is a plan in the works to release the information, or an important aspect of the situation that YOU don’t know about that would make a significant difference in the story. “Leaking it” could cause tons of issues.

Just my two cents…

David B. Grinberg

Lorrie, thanks so much for taking the time to share your comments, which are appreciated.

Please note this post is specifically directed toward government communicators (per the headline and text). Therefore, it should already be implied — as all gov communicators know — that it is absolutely essential to obtain the appropriate levels of approval and clearance from one’s managers/supervisors/leadership prior to speaking to any reporter (regardless of the sourcing or lack thereof).

Nevertheless, it’s always helpful to reiterate the importance of going through the proper channels and abiding by the standard operating procedures of one’s agency regarding media relations in general and attribution in particular.

  • “Leaking” information, as you put it, should neither be advised nor condoned under any circumstances.

However, it may be helpful in situation-based media relations if an authorized agency spokesperson goes off-the-record, as necessary and appropriate, to point reporters in the right direction regarding other sources to obtain information for which your agency cannot provide.

Thanks again for the important reminder. Your valuable feedback is appreciated.