Over the course of years, we’ve given speeches about a variety of topics -- ranging from human resources to performance management to budgeting. But whatever the nature of the talk, when it’s time for Q&A, eventually someone asks us something like this: “There’s so much good happening in our government. How come the press never seems interested in anything but bad news?”
First, we suggest in a transparently self-serving way, that if people want to get out important news about their government, they should write to us or call us. After that, we make it clear that we can’t speak for journalists generally, though we do have a good idea how others do their jobs.
Then we try to be of greater help, generally offering up one or more of the following five pieces of advice.
1) Reach Out Yourself. Sometimes state and local governments will send out a press release to announce a new exciting program or initiative. These days that press release often comes through e-mail. But it takes little reflection to realize that the average person who can get an article published has an in-box full of messages competing for attention.
What’s more, an impersonal press release is far less likely to capture a writer’s interest than a more informal note, which is sent to an individual personally.
Caution here: It’s easy to tell when a mass mailing is being disguised as a personal note, even when the recipient’s name is at the top. You might be surprised to hear how many allegedly personal notes we get that are addressed to “Dear Barrett,” because our company is “Barrett and Greene,” Inc. and auto-generated letter-makers think Barrett must be the first name. (And “and” must be our middle name, like “the” is the middle name of “Smokey the Bear,)
We understand that practically everyone in state and local government is overloaded with work, and that writing a good note takes a little time. But that can be the cost of communicating in an effective way.
2) Don’t oversell. We’re talking here about getting good news out. But when the good news is tempered with whatever cautionary details are pertinent it has a great deal more credibility. For example, if there are no proven results for a new program, but you’re excited about its potential, it’s not a bad idea to say that to someone who is interviewing you.
Some people are inclined to pepper their interviews with multiple superlatives about how the effort underway in their city, county or state is “the first of its kind,” or “a major innovation,” or a “best practice.” And that may be effective with reporters who are reasonably new on the job. But, to borrow a phrase from the advertising industry, you’re “selling the sizzle, not the steak.” Ultimately, if an interviewer asks you for concrete examples about the potent results of the effort, and you have none, that won’t do anyone any good.
3) Tell stories. So much of the good work being done by government can be pretty complicated in nature. And if you confine yourself to “prose that’s gritty with numbers,” as an old college friend of ours put it, you can easily lose someone’s attention.
Jay Geneske, the one-time director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s digital strategy (who is now with the Institute for Citizens and Scholars) told us some years ago, “Stories help make ideas more concrete.” As he explained, there’s a narrative arc to a story that is personal and human, particularly when it’s about the impact of an action.
Consider, for a moment, the kinds of articles that you enjoy reading. It’s our guess that for most of you, it’s the anecdotes that capture your attention. So, providing the stories up front is just good common sense.
4) Try not to pivot. We know for a fact that some institutions train their employees to stick to a bunch of pre-arranged story points when they’re talking to someone in the press. And if a question comes up that’s not part of one of those themes, the idea is to “pivot,” and stay on message.
As far as we can see, this might be totally effective if you’re being interviewed, live, for television or radio. The interviewer may not have the time to dig deeper and get you back to the question that was originally asked. But, speaking for ourselves – and we think for others – changing the subject, however subtly, can be frustrating and annoying, and diminishes the chances that the story you want to tell will be told.
Instead, we’d recommend answering the question directly, and then pointing the interviewer to the thoughts that you think are important and necessary for readers to completely understand what’s going on.
5) Don’t lie. As we type those words, we picture some of the readers of this B&G report feeling a sense of distaste. Calling people liars is a nasty business. So, maybe we should use a more tasteful phrasing: “Don’t dissemble.”
Still, however gently we phrase this idea, it’s not uncommon for people to want to fudge the facts a bit to make things look better. Talking about “huge numbers” of people who support an idea, when in fact, you only know that there are a couple of dozen is a common example.
Then too, there are lies (oh, that word) of omission. Failing to mention that a new program is really just in its pilot stages can get it covered. But if the reporter eventually discovers the truth, you’ll have lost credibility. And given the relatively small number of people who are likely to be covering your story, it’s not wise to be seen as an unreliable source.
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