Media Relations: Shaping the Story — Part 1

“Everything here is negotiable…”

Those are the words of a Washington Post reporter in a recent email to key sources for a coveted front page article. Included in the email was a working draft copy of the story. The news outlet Texas Observer obtained copies of the emails and broke the news…that is, the news within the news. The Post subsequently addressed the issue with an article reported from an inside-the-newsroom perspective.

The article asks:
“Should reporters let their sources see their stories before they’re published or aired?”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/washington-post-editors-back-writer-who-made-changes-to-story-at-subjects-request/2012/07/25/gJQAdYI89W_story.html?goback=%2Egmp_3902067%2Egde_3902067_member_139037931

The Post article goes on to point out that, “Some journalists think it helps make news reports more accurate.”

This view was also supported by a Post blogger who covers media issues.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/post/post-reporter-criticized-for—-checking-his-facts/2012/07/25/gJQA9Yot8W_blog.html

Previewing the Piece

Yes, a reporter sent his key sources advance copy to “negotiate” an information exchange before a final draft article was submitted to his editors. This is conventionally viewed as an unorthodox method by professional journalism standards. Nevertheless, it does happen because a lot of reporters use their own unique methods of gathering information. This media relations issue – previewing the piece — has significant relevance for government communicators attempting to shape a story.

As a govie dealing with the media, you want to find out as much information as possible from a reporter regarding their request. Doing so will better enable you to strategically shape the story before the story shapes your agency. Failure to do so runs the risk of doing “damage control” after a negative or inaccurate story is out. It’s common knowledge that fewer people pay attention to media corrections and retractions compared to the original story content.

Moreover, if you are responsible for briefing an agency head, or other high-level official, then you want to share as much relevant info with them as possible prior to an arranged media interview. Therefore, it never hurts to diplomatically ask a reporter to see advance copy of a story. Remember, the worst they can say is no.

Explain to the reporter why previewing the story will be mutually beneficial. Convey to the journo that you need to double check copy and quotes for factual accuracy and objective context before the story is out. Tell the reporter that your butt is on the line, as is theirs.

Getting the Story Right

It’s important to remember that journalists are usually just as concerned as govies regarding a story being objective and free of errors. After all, while the story may involve your specific agency, the reporter’s reputation is likewise on the line.

Thus, the bottom line for diligent, objective and ethical journalists is to get the story right the first time. This is even more important for reporters in today’s ultra-competitive 24/7 news cycle, where every paragraph or statement may be parsed by other media, government officials, stakeholder groups and the public.

Many times reporters will make follow-up requests for more information even before a government communicator follows up with them. For example, a reporter may make another contact for a reaction after speaking to other sources, or want to double check info or data during the editing process. Every follow-up contact you have with a reporter represents an opportunity to strategically shape the story to benefit your agency.

While the “Fourth Estate” generally begrudges letting sources review draft content and quotes, this practice nonetheless occurs even at the highest levels of journalism – as evidenced by the Washington Post incident cited above. A reporter may volunteer, albeit occasionally, to let a government communicator preview a piece. If and when this occurs, be ready to capitalize on the situation by ensuring message consistency and accuracy. As noted, no reporter or media outlet wants to resort to a correction, clarification, or retraction after a story is out.

Maximizing media relations

Of course, reporters are more likely to give govies a sneak peak of a story if a relationship already exists built upon mutual trust and goodwill. This is one reason why it’s essential to foster and maximize positive media relations.

While some reporters will periodically allow sources to preview draft copy and quotes, many won’t. Thus, usually the only way to find out is to be proactive and ask. If a reporter says no, they will usually explain that it’s against the policy of their news organization or not the way they personally go about reporting.

If that’s the case then fine, at least you tried. Further, it demonstrates to reporters your serious nature and meticulous attention to detail as a government communicator – which, in turn, will hopefully keep them honest in their reporting.

Moreover, if a reporter rejects your request to preview a story, and then parts of the piece end up being wrong or taken out of context, that reporter may think twice next time about granting your request.

Government communicators need to recognize this media relations reality and strategically leverage it to best position public perception of their agency.

Also see:

“Media Relations: Shaping the Story — Part 2”

https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/media-relations-shping-the-story-part-2

“Talking to Reporters: Ten Tips”

https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/talking-to-reporters-ten-tips

DBG

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

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7 Comments

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Profile Photo Deb Dyar

I think the practice of reporters sharing story drafts diminishes the professionalism of both the reporter (apparently insecure and willing to compromise journalistic ethics in an effort to get every detail exactly right) and the source (equally insecure about the information they have shared with a reporter and now being given an opportunity to sanitize it). Haven’t we as government communicators all wished we could state something better or differently or more clearly?

The fundamentals still matter. Good reporters will continue to report the truth in an ethical and professional manner without interference or pressure from external forces. Good journalism trumps good public relations!

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Thanks for your comments, Deb, I always appreciate it when readers take the time to provide feedback. In this instance, I feel obligated to address your feedback directly and bluntly.

First, I agree (in part) that good journalism may trump good PR at times — but not every time. I would argue that govt communicators who master the art of exemplary media relations and PR benefit all journalists and the entire journalism industry, especially those reporters who are simply mediocre or just plain lousy. Thus, excellent media relations often begets good journalism. It’s not always a one way street. Ideally, the interactions between govies and journos represent a mutually beneficial relationship.

Second, no one is advocating that we trash the “fundamentals” – which you don’t comprehensively define in your comments. What fundamentals are you referring to exactly? It’s important to recognize that the fundamentals for expert communicators are not necessarily the same as those of professional journalists — that’s why we are on opposite sides of the fence.

Third, basic media relations do involve what you call “interference or pressure” — at least in my humble opinion. This actually is fundamental from a communications perspective because the ultimate goal is successfuly communicating specific messages, for specific reasons, to specific audiences, at specific times, etc. (ie. staying on message). The govie-journo interaction goes both ways. Reporters routinelyexert “interference or pressure” – as you put it — to obtain the info they seek. Have you ever dealt with a reporter who was less interested in substantive facts and more interested in “dirt digging”? Some our nation’s leaders have historically used the term “muckrakers” (Teddy Roosevelt), while others hace cited “yellow journalism” — and that’s being kind compared to what the Nixon Administration called the press, for example. That’s one of Therefore, dealing with interference and pressure from the media is one big reason why government communicators exist.

More to follow…

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Following up on your comments, Deb, I respectfully disagree with your point that “reporters sharing story drafts diminishes the professionalism of both the reporter…and the source.

To the contrary, If a reporter asks a source to preview draft copy/content, it’s usually to ensure the accuracy and objectivity of the final product. Reporters may also share draft copy/content in an effort to obtain more comprehensive info from sources, especially if so-called conventional journalism methods are not working. From a reporter’s perspective, allowing sources to preview a story may, in some instances, yield more relevant and newsworthy info than originally gathered.

I think what diminishes journalism most is reporting that ends up being factually inaccurate or libelous, overly sensational and subjective. If sharing draft copy with sources was such an abhorrent media practice, then more reporters would be fired for doing it — and fewer reporters would actually do it, especially among leading media outlets.

You can also look at it this way: in the game of Blackjack (five-card draw) would you be offended and refuse to look at the dealer’s hand if the dealer decided to show his/her cards even before you placed a bet? Or would viewing the dealer’s hand in advance – whether reactively or proactively – provide the player with more info to make the best decision possible on how to proceed? Just some food for thought.

Profile Photo Deb Dyar

I take your point about govt communicators mastering the art of media and public relations, but I think you have mixed the premise of the original argument (vetting stories with sources) with the respective roles of journalists and govt. communicators.

I agree that relationships built on trust are critical to the mutually beneficial relationship you describe. However, that in no way suggests that compromising the independence of our respective roles is necessary to achieve that outcome. To your point about journalists and govt communicators being on “opposite sides of the fence,” mutual benefit is achievable by building and maintaining positive relationships with the media (that’s a discussion for another time), helping reporters with context, facts and accuracy, being aggressive when necessary to inform story content, while still maintaining our independence.

With that said, I will concede this issue is not black and white and your argument that sharing a draft can result in a better story is true in some cases. However, that outcome is predicated on the relationship that exists between the reporter and the source and a clear understanding of their respective roles, ie.., “he is sharing this story with me to ensure the facts are correct, not to rewrite, edit or ‘shape” the story’”. This practice in my view should be the exception and not the norm.

Good reporters will write good stories and lazy or lousy reporters will still be lazy and lousy whether they share story drafts with sources or not. As a govt communicator, I do not want to share responsibility for a bad story written by a lazy reporter. Yet, having previewed the story and with no control over its final outcome, I now own it just as much as the reporter does and subsequently share any potential fallout. Govt communicators don’t operate in a perfect world and sometimes negative stories are written, damage control is necessary and we should be prepared to respond.

I didn’t spend a time on the “fundamentals” since it seemed somewhat “fundamental” to this audience. However, since you asked, in my humble opinion, there are important fundamentals that govt communicators/pr share with journalists including: truth and accuracy, fairness, accountability, independence and transparency. In my view, compromising any of those fundamentals potentially diminishes reporters and govt communicators.

Although a symbiotic relationship exists between journalists and govt communicators, I maintain that good journalism trumps public relations.

Another discussion for another conversation focuses on this question: Is a govt communicator/pr’s role different than a communicator/pr role in the private sector?

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Thanks for your constructive and thought-provoking feedback, Deb.
All things considered, I think we will have to respectfully agree to disagree on some important points. However, I like your idea of examining the differing roles of PR and media relations professionals in the public versus private sectors. You may want to consider a blog on this interesting and timely topic.

Thanks again, Deb, for lending an articulate and strong voice to this ongoing and consequential debate.