Lessons from the Vice President’s ‘journalist-in-a-closet’ incident

It seems a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel spent the better part of an evening fundraiser last week headlined by Vice President Joe Biden locked in a storage closet, news of which made its way onto the Drudge Report. Everyone is bending over backwards to dig their way out of the embarrassment but for those of us in the communications business there are a couple of lessons to be learned on how to handle a situation like this so you don’t end up trying to explain away kidnapping charges yourself.

The story of the incident is that the Vice President was appearing at the private home of Alan Ginsburg for a fundraiser and only a single ‘pool’ reporter was along for the visit. Veteran political reporter, Scott Powers, arrived at the event and a “low level staffer” promptly ushered him into a storage room where he was locked up with a small desk and a bottle of water for an hour and a half prior to the remarks by the VP and then again for another hour or so after. Apologies are flying but everyone admits it’s not unusual for journalists to be cloistered in holding rooms during events though they rarely are they locked in a closet.

The story caught my eye because I have had the indelicate task of keeping journalists away from guests at events on a couple of occasions and learned some valuable tips from the experiences. Here are some that you can apply next time you get the mission to corral a group of reporters for your client or organization:

1) Make sure it’s absolutely necessary to cloister them at all.

Are you absolutely sure you need to keep the reporters away from the crowd? Any professional journalist in the business understands the concept of ‘Off the Record’ and when you explain that the social portion and guests at the event are off limits you are almost guaranteed that the request will be honored. Sometimes, that isn’t enough for some events due to private citizen requests or, in my own case, the wishes of our Iraqi guests at General Petraeus’ change of command with General Dempsey. So, if you must lock them away then;

2) Make you make them as comfortable as possible.

When I have had to place journalists in a holding room one of the biggest tips is to make sure you hook them up with all of the things invited guests are enjoying or at least close to it. I made sure we budgeted for a min-buffet and plenty of drinks in their room so they didn’t feel like inconveniences. It might cost you more but if nothing else, common courtesy tells you that you should treat them like guests and not nuisances. Oh—and the holding room cannot be a storage closet!

3) Offer work for them to do while they wait.

I usually planned to have some of our other leaders available to chat while they waited to take advantage of the opportunity for us and fill their time. If they were waiting on a general officer to come in and speak I would send in a couple of prepared colonels to chat about our mission and possibly set up future interviews. Many organizations don’t get a chance to interact with journalists on a regular basis. Having them in a holding room for a VIP is a golden opportunity to build relationships for later or pitch stories they may not have heard about. Our command was building the entire Iraqi Security Forces and there were tons of interesting but not necessarily pressing stories we never missed a chance to pitch.

4. Make sure the holding room allows them to do their jobs while they wait

In this wired age you need to make sure they can keep working while they wait. You should be prepared to have a Wi-Fi network they can use set up to keep them busy while waiting or, at a minimum, there should be cell phone coverage in the room. A busy journalist is like any professional and being forced to sit with nothing to do is close to torture for many of them. By ensuring they can use the forced time out to continue working you will gain a lot of professional appreciation. An addition to this rule is to make sure there are lots of power strips because everyone appreciates the chance to power up their phones, laptops and cameras when the chance comes up.

5. Have a plan and tell it to them from the start.

The key to success with all of this is that you have a plan. I recommend you write it down on a hand out for the journalists and pass it to them as they arrive. You tell them up front why they are being cloistered, offer a timeline for the period, a list of what food and drink will be available, who they can talk to while they wait and all of the access information for the Wi-Fi network you may be providing. The preparation will be appreciated and build a wealth of good will that might come in handy if the party goes long or the plan falls apart as they so often do.

Following these tips will almost always lead to a positive experience for both you and the reporters. With a little advanced planning and some common sense efforts you won’t have to answer questions the next day from Matt Drudge or read about your ‘Epic fail’ on Twitter.

Anyone else have some lessons learned or tips to share? Post them here or at my company blog: ScoutComms Blog-Lessons from VP and I will update this post with the best suggestions.

This is blog is originally posted at ScoutComms

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Sam Allgood

I don’t have a tip, but ever since I heard about this story I’ve been wondering why anyone in the government is violating our constitutional ‘right of association’ granted in the 1st Amendment. No wonder it’s an ‘indelicate task’.

Frederick P. Wellman

You have to remember this event occured in a private residence with a public figure so there is a grey area there where they don’t necessarily have to allow press at all. In general, this comes up more often than you might think especially in the military and at State for example where diplomatic sensitivities mean you can’t have cameras wandering around a social event. That was almost always where I have faced this issue. Believe it or not, journalists understand this and its pretty common to be relegated to a holding area. The issue in this one was that it was a closet with a ‘guard’ at the door which takes it too a whole other level of ‘indelicate’ and poorly thought out. If you read the story the journalist is trying to not make a big deal out of it and seems to find it funny more than outrageous.