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Monday, February 23, 2015

5 Ways To Work Effectively With The Media: Tips For Federal Communicators

Often I hear people ask about how to work with the media more effectively. They worry about reporters who "just don't seem to like us," who "give us a hard time about everything," and so on.

The assumption behind this question is that reporters are somehow "out to get" their sources. Not a helpful place to begin, because it presupposes a negative outcome from the start.

Here are some things I've learned over time from personal experience working with reporters, talking to them, and from observing the experiences of others.

1. Reporters are motivated by public service, just like federal workers. It's a thankless job. They go into it because they care. Have the same respect for them that you want them to have for you. 

2. Reporters want to speak with sources directly. Don't speak on their behalf, don't translate, don't be the intermediary, just arrange for the interview.

3. Reporters find it hard to gain access to good sources. Your value as a public affairs officer lies in your connecting the reporter with the high-value source. Even better, combine the source with high-value open data that is easy to find on your website.

4. Reporters don't instinctively understand your subject matter. You may think that your agency's mission, operations, policies and procedures are intuitive, but they're normally extremely hard to understand for outsiders. Make it simple for them to understand. This is different from high-value sources and open data, because the value lies in simplification rather than the availability of complicated, primary sources

5. Reporters are always pressed for time. A variety of factors have made individual stories less valuable - so reporters must work on multiple pieces at once, and no matter what they do, it's always surpassed by the next big story. The best thing you can do is deliver the information they need as quickly as possible with the least amount of hassle.

One final thought: When a reporter asks a question, they want a direct answer. Never encourage anyone in your agency to "message" outside the question. If a hostile question comes your way, simply say: "Your underlying premise seems to be X. Let me explain why it's Y."

In more than a decade of federal service, I have found that most negative coverage has to do with the perception that the agency is not forthcoming with the truth. Simply give them the information they need - good, bad or indifferent - respect their deadlines, and explain your limitations.

Government communicators aren't private-sector public relations professionals. That's a line that too often gets crossed. 

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All opinions my own.