Event Title: “Bridging the Gap: Working with the Media,” Partnership for Public Service/Federal Communicators Network joint event, August 21, 2018, Washington DC
Disclaimer: Notes taken by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. Dr. Blumenthal’s attendance and distribution of these notes does not represent her agency or any other organization or entity. All opinions expressed at the event belong to the person expressing them.
Nonpartisan: This was a nonpartisan training event that touched on matters directly at the intersection of civil service and politics. It should be clear that these notes are nonpartisan in nature and that the note-taker is not using them, explicitly or implicitly, advance or detract from any political agenda. Accordingly, notes are not altered or abridged other than to compensate for human limitations associated with note-taking.
Data Quality: Data quality is limited by the author’s ability to transcribe the notes as they were spoken and by the fact that the author’s computer battery died during the question and answer session at the end of the event. Therefore, content is quoted and annotated to the best of the note-taker’s ability.
Free and Open Distribution: This event was videotaped for distribution to the public. These notes comprise the portion of the event that consisted of the panel discussion and most of the Q&A. Names of individuals asking questions have been omitted to protect their privacy. This document is public domain and may be excerpted or republished at will.
· Joe Davidson, Columnist, The Washington Post
· Alex Thompson, Politics and Policy Editor, VICE News
· Tal Kopan, Politics Reporter, CNN
· Tamara Keith, White House Correspondent, National Public Radio (NPR)
Moderator: Samantha Donaldson, Director of Communications, Partnership for Public Service
Welcome: Virginia Hyer, FCN 2018 Training/Workshop Coordinator
II. Panel Discussion
“How are you coping in this new media environment?”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “The appetite of news consumers is absolutely insatiable. People are more interested in political news than ever before. One might call it a healthy obsession or an unhealthy obsession, what’s happening now here in Washington. Good for ratings but also puts incredible pressure on us as journalists. In terms of what communications professionals are doing to succeed. The challenge everyone has right now is getting anything to stick that isn’t related to Donald J. Trump.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “News cycle so relentless. Not only exhausting but also hard to break through. One-off stories that matter outside of Washington — hard to get those to a national audience. Sometimes hard to get to the niche audience because there’s just so much news. Journalists under microscope in this environment. A lot of attention, people interested in getting a journalist doing something wrong. Not only a deluge, amped up even more (by the) increase in pressure not only to keep up, but to continue to get the stories right. How to break through in way that doesn’t sacrifice (the) integrity of (the) story.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “Echo what they said, more pressure to get it right, pressure to keep up with (the) news cycle. Hostility to press. Even if willing to go off record and talk, good number of people in this environment, people calling you a piece of trash. A lot of hostility. Anyone willing to engage and talk an issue out is always appreciated.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “Not sure (there’s) more pressure to get it right, always that pressure, but if you write a story about a report critical of (the) Administration, you will get a lot of flak from readers about how unfair you’re being to the Administration, even if it’s just a straight news story.”
“Tamara, you mentioned ‘stickiness’ of news stories. Do you need a news release? What are you looking for to get through your busy inbox?”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “It still has to be newsy. And I think the burden of what’s newsy is only higher and higher. To the point about antipathy towards journalists. There’s a lot of good news stories that won’t get told, it’s just a fact. No space for kudos to agency for doing their job, that’s just what’s supposed to happen. For a lot of you all, it feels like why do we only make news when something goes wrong. Unfair reality of news cycle. Hard to sell an ‘everything went right today’ news story. It has to be different, interesting, hooked into a conversation we’re already having. Did your agency make a bust of a crime that’s new, did you go about it in a different way, did you come up with a creative solution to a regulatory problem? Should be different than what agency does every day. Appetite for something that differentiates. Build relationship with journalist that covers your area and can break it.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “Good news always hard to sell. Press release showing up in inbox not (the) best way to get me to do a story. Started thinking early in the Administration (that) we don’t have to cover every tweet.”
“Alex how about your advice? You’re VICE’s newer media outlet, you have the TV show on HBO, you push the edge in the way you’re covering (news). How would you recommend the guys in the room push the envelope?”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “We’re not remaking the wheel. What sells is new information. One thing we always ask is what can we show viewers. It’s not enough to interview somebody in a conference room. Is there someplace we can go with them where people can see something they haven’t seen before. Can we take pictures (of) what they haven’t seen in print? I would also add that a story is always better with tension. If someone wants something and someone isn’t getting it, anything you guys can do to demonstrate that. Press releases are not — it’s just not the way it goes. You (need to) think when you hit send, a hundred reporters already have it, it’s hard to go to an editor (with that) because a hundred other reporters have it too.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “I like a well-crafted press release (laughter) but it clearly is not the only or best way to promote your product. If you do have a relationship with a reporter, that reporter can be prepared and produce a better story out of that. Give the person a heads up, give them time to prepare, that has the advantage of giving the agency a more in-depth story. But I don’t want to pooh-pooh the press release. The downside of course is that everybody gets them. But if well-written, that can provide basis for a good story.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “To what he (Davidson) was saying, a nice off-the-record call we can advance that this is coming down and by the way there’s great sound (?), that would make it more likely that a story is gonna (sic) happen. By the way I’m probably not the right person to call. I cover the White House. Doing that research (who covers what) is critical.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “Not to talk down to you who do this every day, but thinking through where you want the story to go and who you want to tell it. New York Times versus NPR — think about the Times vs. NPR — think about the fact that each of those entities need different things. The New York Times might need a story with a photo or two, a lengthier conversation with background. For air, great visuals (are needed), unless (you have an) incredible story that doesn’t need visuals. You’ll probably need some show and tell, a person who can speak at length. It can really help along the way. As a reporter, agencies come and say, I have a great thing I don’t know how to tell it. If you want to do that legwork and make the pitch great from the beginning. Make it great from the beginning. (If you do this, you will stand a better chance of getting your story covered.)
“(Talk about the) relationships you’ve developed, keys to success.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “I’m a big fan of coffee. That helps. I want to know the three things they are thinking about constantly, that their agency is thinking about, that they are trying to communicate. I say these are the subject areas, what we want to know. A lot of reporters, it makes it simpler if you know what those reporters’ three main topics are and vice versa.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “(The) absolute essence of (a) reporter, (the) source, people you come back to over and over again, (the) key to (a) relationship is always trust. You have to trust us as reporters to get (the) story right and not burn you, and we have to trust you, when we ask if you wave me off something, confirm something, you’re not going to burn me. Doesn’t mean we always have to be happy with the same thing. There will be times when (a) reporter will write something you don’t love. (We should) give you a heads up about honestly what a story is going to look like. If I know you’re not necessarily going to be pleased it’s my job within (the) context of (the) story to make that clear with some time to comment. For me, I want to be able to know professionals know what they’re talking about, (and) if they don’t, put me in touch with someone who knows. So frustrating to work with press shops who see themselves as guard dogs. It is so much healthier when if you as a communications professional have to find people within your agency. We can work with you on background. We can work through some of those things. Being able to talk with someone who knows something. Trust, open line of communication, access.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “I’d like to echo that. One thing that’s happened is reliance on email statements. It’s sometimes impossible to get through to (an) expert. (The) communications shop thinks you’re satisfied with (an) email statement. (It) can really be helpful to let reporters talk with subject matter experts. Increasingly communications shops (are) reluctant to do that. It’s not the best way for us to do journalism. In some ways (it’s) more efficient. The product is also —
Tamara Keith, NPR: “I can think of a couple of occasions where I did a story that would have been a lot fairer to the agency, a lot better to the Administration, if I could have actually talked to a human being with context. Instead I was walled off from any human being. You end up with a story that — I know people in agencies are afraid of stepping the wrong way and getting in the wrong place with this Administration. The result of the gun-shyness is stories that are not as good as they could be, not as fair as they could be.”
“Can you think of other stories that have surfaced, advice for how folks can overcome those challenges?”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “One challenge of being nascent in an Administration — a lot of shops in town started with career people as points of contact and then slowly have been able to build out their political staff over time. I think a lot of these shops are still getting settled to a certain extent and some ways they’ve been doing things early in the Administration have been finessed — they’re just a different creature — reshaped the way the press shop works. Priorities get hammered out and the whole transition begins to shake into place. Biggest thing I would ask as a journalist of a press shop, there will be stories we won’t like, don’t assume that any intention is untoward. A lot of times we get (a) response to request for comment like, why do you want to know this, what’s your objective, often times we want to do a contextualized story, we have a lot of sources from other places (who have) told us credible things, we’re coming to you, the more you can make an effort to assume journalists (are) not out to catch you, reserving (judgment?)…not everyone (is) on the up and up, the ones you know are making a genuine effort, don’t assume ill intention.
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “Even when get boilerplate statements from agencies, they often come late in the day. The earlier you get the information to the journalist, the more you can shape that story. Stories are shaped along with the reporting. Even as a columnist, where I can express my opinion. Still my column is reported — I don’t necessarily know when I start writing where the story is gonna (sic) end up. It’s shaped by the information I get. If you get it to the reporter at deadline or just after deadline — it’s not gonna (sic) help shape the story.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “Just don’t lie to us. It completely poisons the relationship. There are people who have said, ‘Off the record,” and then waved me off and they were lying. From there on out I will never believe you again. Just don’t do it. If you have to say, off the record, this is really off the record, I can’t not wave you off. Do something. Don’t lie.” (Note from DB: I do not fully understand this last sentence because the jargon “waved me off” is unfamiliar. I think I understand the concept though — if you provide false information the reporter will never trust you again.)
Tal Kopan, CNN: “To the point of wave off. I think facts are really important to build relationships with various agencies. I will say I know you’re probably not going to be able to on the record (to) confirm or deny. But I’m asking you off the record would you guide me. That off the record I wouldn’t wave you off, that’s so crucial. And when you say to me there’s more to this story and it would be irresponsible to run with it, I’m gonna (sic) believe you. That’s the other side. The wave off, don’t wave off, it sounds so silly, but it’s so crucial to have that line of communication.”
“Tamara, how are you using social media to source stories?”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “Nothing makes me crazier than a PR professional saying, ‘Well, we Tweeted it.’ Example — this was in the Obama Administration — (I asked), ‘What time was the meeting?’ (and the answer was) ‘We put a picture on Flickr and there was a clock in the picture.’ Social media is not a complete replacement for actual communication.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “A lot of agencies like to put a picture and a 140-character meeting readout on Twitter. That’s fine, it still helps. Not every agency uses Dataminer (?) to bring the Tweets to them. The most use of Twitter (for me) is seeing what other journalists know and trying to match it. (I’m) not using Twitter for (a) competitive edge. I do follow influencers in that space and see what they’re Tweeting, but most story production that comes out of Twitter is trying to match what people have on there and bringing your own stuff.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “I have found that some people will read a story that I wrote — FCC, FEC — people will follow me and Tweet out a story on their own personal account. (This) creates (a) personal connection. Just like politics, in this business, this is a people business, (a) relationship business. If you lie to us we’ll get mad…we’ll get frustrated with you. If we tell you we’re working on (a) story and (a) reporter isn’t totally honest, that probably ruins (the) relationship with you too. Seeing what certain journalists are working on, what threads they’re following (is important). If you can reach out, that is a helpful way to begin that relationship.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “I use social media primarily to promote my column although it’s a way to get information as well. I think communication shops should use all forms (of communication).”
“I want to ask them one more question and then open it up to you for all your questions. If you could name your biggest PR pet peeve.”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “Simply not answering questions, or being disingenuous. (Example of) where the public affairs person, it was about an OIG (Office of Inspector General) report, what’s going on in that particular agency. I asked (the) agency for comment and they referred me to (the) OIG. I said it’s OIG, (you’re the) Headquarters program, that’s disingenuous, the agency was the place to discuss its own program. I thought that was being disingenuous. (It) doesn’t generate respect from me for that communications shop. (Also) years ago, folks used to put contact information on the press release. A lot of press releases don’t have contact information — name, phone number, email. Over last several years (I have) noticed that.
Alex anything to add?
Alex Thompson, VICE News: (I’m) always willing to go off the record, (to) talk (about the) story. (The) story will be nuanced, better, closer to the truth. Unwillingness to do it hurts the story. (It’s) frustrating when they’re just unwilling to talk at all.
Tal Kopan, CNN: All previous comments notwithstanding, two. One silly one we always make fun of — “off the record no comment.” Is that a decline off the record? Is that a not respond? I get why it’s done but it’s silly. Tell me what you want the story to say. Just be clear. (Also a) general PR pet peeve is sending me a press release but then not just following up once, but three times and also calling me to make sure. If you don’t get a response, take the hint.”
III. Audience Questions (interspersed with Moderator questions)
“This Administration is perhaps the most visible in terms of politics (affecting representation of the civil service by Administration communications shops), but the Obama Administration was also very tightly controlled. How do you keep politics out? (DB note: This was my question so I am paraphrasing.)
Tal Kopan, CNN: “Make (the) agency available. A lot of what we do is try to cultivate sources who can tell us what’s going on without varnish. To a certain extent (it) is (the reality that) we’re gonna (sic) try to get around that closed door, but moving aside from the (fact that) we’re trying to make news…keep secrets (?)…the more that we can talk to real people, OK we’ll talk on background (on an) ongoing basis…the more you can put us directly in touch with a source…” (DB comment: Agency employees are not allowed to just pick up the phone and call the press, something the reporters did not seem aware of. I mentioned this to Joe Davidson after the event.)
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “In this media environment it is going to be politicized, outlets like Breitbart are going to make the headline…” (DB comment: I did not capture the entire response to this question.)
Tal Kopan, CNN: “We don’t control the headline. Keep that in mind. We can’t control every single way that a story is Tweeted by everyone. Character limits.”
Moderator: “Tal, what are the kinds of stories you’re working on or working towards?”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “As a beat reporter, (for an) issue-based beat, I really am interested in some of those quirky stories, when we talk about sitting down for a coffee, a lot of these agencies have these really cool sub-functions, I am a beat reporter interested in telling those stories. I had a sit-down with an agency, a subcomponent that does interesting things, you don’t get the good press, here’s what I could envision, because it was an investigative agency it wasn’t possible. (Note from DB: Not sure if this is because investigative agencies can’t discuss their cases in progress.)
Moderator: “Joe, what kind of stories are you looking for for your column these days?”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “I always look for stories with people in them. People can really help tell a story. Whenever I can get real-life examples, whenever I can talk to people, recipients of the service or who haven’t been getting the service, I like to get my stories from real human beings I can talk to.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “I also really love people. I don’t get to talk to them, I cover the White House, the most high-pressure beat on earth. One area of particular interest for me, though on maternity leave, is the opioid crisis. Every couple (of) months, I get to do a story that gets into that, a people story, agency story, data story. Send your stuff my way on that. (It’s) something I’m really interested in as a reporter.”
Moderator: “Data always makes a great story. When people are pitching you data, what is helpful, with the data sets?”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “You want to tell a story. Consider not sending (it) as a PDF. I’ll let others give more fulsome answers. Give it in a form that can be crunched.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “(I) agree. Not gonna (sic) be able to deal with a screenshotted pdf. We have our own format. Our graphics editors need to be able to crunch data as well. Easiest way is to pitch as if you are a news reader. To you what is the most interesting stat. What are you looking for, so if you are pitching it, (it’s) helpful if you are taking topline stats that you find most interesting.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “I will say more fulsomely. I work with some agencies with a lot of data. DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) for example. You can do really great comparative analysis on that data. Often those agencies will help you contextualize it. I will say that while I appreciate agencies that put a lot of raw data out there, (the) problem is when agencies put a lot of data out there, already very curated, already in percentages. (They give you data where you see only) a percent of this case that already meets this criteria. As (a) journalist this makes you suspicious. Why are you presenting it to me with all these lenses? You have to give it in a raw enough form…”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “One thing I look for is trendlines. How things have changed. I want to know how it compares with what happened 5 or 10 years ago. If just a number doesn’t help me much.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “(I remember my) dad saying — figures don’t lie, but liars can figure. When you only give us part of it, (it) makes us wonder what we’re missing.”
“As someone who has great respect for the fourth estate….What would you recommend to combat that (attitude that) if I don’t agree it’s not credible journalism?”
Joe Davidson, The Washington Post: “We just have a responsibility to put the facts out there. To put (them) in context and acknowledge the other side of the story. (The) opioid (crisis), about the elderly and how (the) elderly have a problem with it (is an example). (I got) pushback from old folks, (it) wasn’t from any agency. The elderly thought I was trying to cast them as junkies. (It’s) simply statistics. Because (there was) all this commentary on how people need their medicines, which of course I understand. But it is true that this can lead to drug problems with opioids. Pushback. How do you combat (that)? Well I answered some of these folks. This is just what the (government) report says. (We have a) responsibility to put the facts out there, to try and give more than one side, do the best job we can, we know we’re gonna (sic) get that kind of pushback.”
Tal Kopan, CNN: “Number one is a story you can stand behind. If someone’s gonna (sic) tell a story, you better made sure you made it airtight. A lot of institutions not just reporter (?)…layers and layers and layers of review…but can the institution stand by the story. Development in this Administration, don’t recall before, willingness of Federal agencies, not just (the) White House but agencies, to attack individual reporters publicly in (a) way that can escalate the tone of that relationship. I will say it could be (that there is) an opening in that story to get upset, but sometimes (the facts are) not favorable and you see a story getting attacked that actually does stand. To a certain extent it goes with the territory, but I do question the benefit of getting into public fights when you could start with a phone call, and maybe they did start with a phone call. One last thing. Corrections are a good part of journalism, we shouldn’t be afraid to correct, transparency, reporters are not infallible. That all happens and so starting from a place of, let’s talk about the issues we have about the story and assume you’re trying to do good work, that’s always valuable and helpful.”
Alex Thompson, VICE News: “In terms of what you all can do — you can help us make these stories more airtight. You can help make it more accurate. You can get on the phone and just talk to us off the record. You can help us make them more airtight.”
Tamara Keith, NPR: “As journalists, there are differences within our industry — some more publicly combative than others. I work for an organization that just keeps its head down and focuses on) doing more good stories. We’re not interested in a public fight, (we) defend our honor by doing good work.”
(Note from DB: The notes end here, although there were some questions after this. My computer battery died.)
IV. Post-Panel Discussion
After the panel I had the great honor to meet Joe Davidson personally and to share some thoughts. Briefly, I explained to him that Federal employees are not authorized to simply pick up the phone and call the press, and expressed my curiosity that the media panel did not seem to know that.
I shared some thoughts about some of the factors I think get in the way of things. One of them is the common misperception within Federal agencies that public affairs specialists are there to tell a “good news story,” or to stick with “talking points.” I recalled that in 2005 when I joined U.S. Customs and Border Protection, our agency got in trouble with his very own newspaper; we were called the “Ministry of Propaganda” because our new boss at the time had circulated something called “talking points” (for use in “repeating the message”) when we were used to the concept of simply providing information upon request. Nowadays, everybody uses talking points and “key messages.”
Another thing that gets in the way is a lack of standards for Federal communication. I explained to him that the Federal Communicators Network developed a white paper on the subject with the aim of implementing a system akin to that used in the U.K., so that we are all on the same page about how we are supposed to be explaining policy and operations.
A third issue has to do with issues around data. In law enforcement, I have had the experience of professionals not wanting to release data because they feared it would aid terrorists. In another agency the concern was about methodology, and the fact that different experts simply have different ways of counting things.
On the less positive side, there are issues in the civil service and among political appointees (regardless of Administration) about wanting to be represented well.
I have been part of initiatives aimed at showing how data support agency programs in the sense that we are demonstrating “results.” (Of course, all comments here are general in nature and cross Administrations as I have worked for the Federal government for 15 years.)
From the civil service side, clearly, if one is a senior level career employee running a program, there is a desire for the program to “look good” in the press, and on the executive’s part to look good as well.
Looking at it from the perspective of what might motivate a political appointee, I raised the point that I have seen a perfectly good program in one Administration that fits the priorities of a second Administration (run by a different political party), be de-emphasized, presumably because one doesn’t want to give them credit (politics is about winning). Separately, if one is a political appointee, one is naturally engaged with what the Administration is saying from a political perspective, and that will affect communication priorities about what the agency’s priorities are.
I also expressed my thought that there are other variables affecting what we conceive of as facts. For example, there are conversations we simply do not know about, or matters that may be hidden from view. The intelligence community has information we do not have. And there are factors that influence a newsroom (financial, political, governmental, and so on) which affect reporting to an unknown extent.
V. Personal Reflection
All of these considerations are daunting, but I expressed my hope for the future for two reasons. First, I believe people are more interested in the truth than they are in politics. Second, I believe that most people care about other people. These two factors, combined with my own personal belief in God’s love for us as a Nation, give me tremendous hope and faith that “things will only get better.”
— Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., August 21, 2018
Copyright 2018 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own. This post is hereby released into the public domain.