(from Maine Townsman, November 1990)
By Jo Josephson, Assistant Editor
Tips: Working With The Media
Someone once said if you want something in the newspaper, it's publicity; if you don't, it's news.
Others put it more bluntly, saying only the sensational, only the controversial gets printed. That the "good" news is rarely printed.
It's fair to say that what constitutes the news depends on which side of the desk or which end of the telephone line you are on.
If you are a reporter, an event is considered news if it involves or affects many people, if it involves important people, if it involves "ordinary" people associated with important events, if it involves change, if it is occurring right now, and, yes, if it involves controversy or conflict.
If you are a reporter it does not include everything discussed at a meeting. News stories are not secretaries' minutes.
But sometimes what is reported as news is dependent on what else is happening at the time. If the news is 'slow,' an event that is normally not considered newsworthy, can make the headlines.
Whether you agree with the press on what is newsworthy or not, it is important that your side of the 'news' be told and that you do so with straightforward honesty, aware that everything you say could be quoted.
lt is also important to realize that in telling your side, you can exert a great amount of control over how the story appears... if you are aware of and practice certain basic "rules" of the game.
South Portland Takes The Offensive
An article in the Portland Press Herald recently indicated that officials in South Portland knew one of the most important of the rules: Don't cover-up the bad news (remember Watergate?). Go to the press with your side before the press comes to you. Put another way, the rule reads: take the offensive, with a carefully thought-out strategy.
When a lawsuit was filed against the city by the Environmental Protection Agency charging that South Portland had been discharging untreated and partially untreated sewage into the city's waterways, the local officials went to the press with the story, before the press came to them.
By taking the offensive, South Portland officials were able to put their "spin" on the story. The result was 'their side' of the story was reported loud and clear.
As it should have been, given the fact that a good news story reports all sides, in other words is balanced.
In keeping with the newspaper's newly designed format, there were not one but two headlines to the story. One read: "EPA sues city over sewage." The other, albeit in smaller type, read: "South Portland officials feel the EPA is ignoring the city's efforts to comply with regulations."
But that wasn't all. Because reporters live for good quotes, South Portland City Manager Jerre Bryant was quoted as saying:
"If we were being sued for drunk driving instead of (violating) the Clean Water Act, this would have been entrapment."
He was also quoted as saying: "We haven't been sitting on our duff. We have been doing a lot of work. We're trying to clean up the environment. I don't know what they (DEP and EPA) are trying to do," said Bryant.
There were no quotes from EPA in the story. That's because, according to the story: "EPA officials did not return phone calls Friday." Not returning reporters' calls, for whatever reason, is a violation of another important rule: Return calls as swiftly as possible.
In the course of the article, which spelled out details of the lawsuit, which asked for penalties up to $25,000 a day, it was also noted that the city's existing sewer system was approved of and partially funded by the EPA (laying the background for the entrapment quotes).
--that federal funds are no longer available.
--that the city has already spent $4 million in local money to upgrade its treatment plant and that it had plans to spend an additional $8.8 million and that it is planning to go to the voters this fall for an approval of a $2.16 million bond issue for sewer improvement.
By taking the offensive, the city was not only able to ensure its residents that it was working to comply with the regulatory agencies but to also put in a timely plug for its upcoming bond issue.
How did the city get such "balanced coverage" of such potentially devastating news?
According to South Portland Assistant City Manager Jeff Jordan, the city was notified by EPA that a lawsuit was being filed in federal district court.
Two days after receipt of the news, the information was shared with the press during the regular Thursday background meeting the city manager holds with the press prior to each council meeting.
At that meeting, along with the rest of the agenda information, Bryant gave the reporter a copy of the lawsuit as well as a four-page memo on the lawsuit that had been prepared for the council members by the assistant city manager.
The memo contained detailed background information on the lawsuit and what the city had done to date to upgrade the system.
In addition to giving the reporter the lawsuit and the memo, Bryant made himself available for comment, providing the reporter with the needed quotes that give vitality to a news story.
Jordan, who drafted the memo, points out that the reporter was not given a "press release" but rather a memo drafted ostensibly for the council, but filled with lots of background for the benefit of the press.
"I've learned that reporters find press releases manipulative; a memo has more credibility," says Jordan.
But no memo can take the place of mutual trust and respect between the reporter and the city official, says Jordan.
"In a crisis, the time taken to build that trust pays off," says Jordan.
Officials contacted for this story provided the TOWNSMAN with some good quotes on how best to work with the press.
On developing a working relationship with the press: "It's a long slow learning curve. You get burned a lot before you learn," Jeff Jordan, assistant city manager, South Portland.
On the importance of providing the press with all the facts: "It's important to educate the press. More people will read what they write than will attend your meeting," Rodney Lynch, Bethel town manager.
On dealing with a crisis: "Unless you have good ongoing relations already, it is unlikely you will get a sympathetic press in a crisis." Terry St. Peter, Caribou city manager.
On being straightforward: "You have to be truthful; you cannot be less than that." Paul Weston, Gorham town manager.
On responding to reporters' questions in a crisis: "Nothing beats planning," Duncan Ballantyne, Bath city manager.
That said, a summary of the major rules follows, with the caveat: "Like every set of rules," says Caribou's St. Peter, there are gray areas and room for individual judgement.
1) Respect deadlines. Make yourself accessible.
Don't drop everything. But return calls to reporters promptly. Know and respect their deadlines.
Respecting those deadlines goes a long way towards building trust and respect and can't but help make for greater accuracy and balance in a story.
Remember, if you don't return the call, probably the fact that you did not will appear in the story the next day, indicating that you are not doing your job or have something to cover up.
Sometimes a reporter will need to reach you in the evening or on the weekends. Let them know you are available in an emergency.
Caribou's Terry St. Peter says he probably returns reporters' calls more swiftly than any other calls, if for no other reason, because he is curious as to why they are calling or what they have heard.
Some managers make it a practice to hold regularly scheduled meetings with the press, either before or after their council or selectmen's meetings.
Like South Portland's Jerre Bryant, they use the time to provide documents and background information on the upcoming agenda to make sure reporters understand the issues.
Or like Gorham's Paul Weston, they use the time to fill-in the reporters who did not attend the meeting. This strategy will save you answering a lot of phone calls, says Weston. While manager in Camden, Weston dealt with two weeklies, two dailies and one triweekly.
Weston says he does not like the pre-meeting briefing, because he does not want to see his remarks in the paper before the meeting with the elected officials.
Others, like St. Peters, prefer the more unstructured approach, where reporters call him several times a week, as needed.
2) Make sure the reporter understands the issues.
For the most part, reporters are generalists; they are wordsmiths, not engineers. So use simple, clear language. Avoid jargon.
Some reporters, especially new ones, are reluctant to confess they don't understand. Be alert to their reactions to what you are saying. If they don't understand the issue, neither will their readers.
St. Peter says this is where patience comes into play. Understand that different reporters have different backgrounds, says St. Peter, who himself was a former reporter for the Bangor Daily News. "Sometimes you must walk reporters through things that appear obvious to you," he says.
Weston says sometimes when the issue is complex, he will develop a press release to carefully spell out the details for the press. Weston says he spends a lot of time with rookie reporters.
Never ask if you can see the story before it is published. First, it is not practical. Second, it smacks of an attempt to censor. However, if you are concerned that the reporter does not have a firm grasp on the issue, make sure the reporter knows you would welcome a phone call should they have some follow-up questions.
3) Reporters deal in facts and figures.
While reporters covering municipal government are, for the most part, generalists, they deal in specific facts, numbers, dates, amounts, etc. It's their job to gather them and yours to provide them.
Make available to them whatever studies or engineering reports or other documents that will enable them to write a complete and accurate story. If you have any question as to whether you should release the document, check the statutes or with your attorney.
4) Reporters are always searching for quotes.
In addition to facts and figures, reporters are always in search of a meaty quote they can attribute to someone. It gives their stories vitality.
Be frank and honest. But watch your words. Be prepared to see whatever you say in print the next day, in or out of context.
Bethel's Lynch says the press likes to quote "off-the-cuff remarks," so he tries to avoid making them.
St. Peter says he talks freely, candidly, and openly, knowing that any one of the groups of words may appear in a direct quotation.
"When you tend to weigh every word, you tend to project defensiveness and suspicion, says St. Peter.
When responding to a request for a taped radio interview, request the questions in advance so you can prepare a well-thought-out response. Both you and the station will benefit. In this case, everything you say is a quote.
5) There is no such thing as "off-the-record."
That's the policy of all newspapers when it comes to things said at public meetings. Simply stated, that means what you say will be attributed to you; in other words, you will be quoted.
So think before you talk. Envision what you say in print tomorrow morning, in quotes.
Some reporters say the phrase off-the-record or I don't want to be quoted is used more frequently by newly elected officials who are not yet used to or comfortable under the public spotlight.
Beyond the public meeting, there are rare occasions when it might be necessary to go off-the-record in an interview, as in the case of providing background information that will enable the reporter to grasp the full meaning of a complicated event.
But if you do go off-record understand that the term means different things to different people, so before you go off-the-record you should discuss with the reporter just what you each mean by the phrase and come to some agreement.
For some people off-the-record information is defined as information that is to be held in confidence, not to be released in any form. It is to be given to only the most trusted reporters. That's hard when the reporter on your beat changes frequently.
For others, it means you can use the information but just don't quote me by name. Or you can use the information, if you can find someone else to attribute it to.
Whatever you and the reporter decide upon, agree to what you mean in advance. Do not make your statement and then say, "But this is off-the-record." It's too late then and it is not fair, especially if it is critical information. Negotiate first. You don't want to put the reporter in a box. You could lose.
If a reporter invites you to go off-the-record, be wary, unless you really trust the reporter.
6) Never say "No Comment."
Reporters translate "no comment" into: "They are hiding something." It raises suspicion not only in the reporter that you are covering up; it will also raise the reader's suspicion when they read the 'no comment' attributed to you in the press the next day.
Remember, the reporter is attempting to write a balanced story and that means getting everyone's comments.
If you can't comment because it is a legal or personnel issue, explain why--that it is under investigation, that it involves privacy, etc. Remember, you want to instill trust.
7) Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know."
Say you don't know, when you don't. You aren't expected to know everything. Don't fudge; it will come back to haunt you.
Instead, say who does know or that you will find out and get back to the reporter as soon as possible. Find out what their deadline is and honor it with as much information as you can provide, even if it isn't all.
8) If something bad happens, don't cover it up.
If the news is "bad," take the offensive. Know the strength of your case, put your spin on it, designate a spokesperson and go to the press with your story before they come to you. That's what South Portland did.
In fashioning how you will respond to reporters' questions, it helps to anticipate the kinds of questions that may be asked of you, says newly hired Bath Town Manager Duncan Ballantyne, who walked into a crisis situation.
Ballantyne does this by playing the game "What if" to assure himself that he has all the information he needs to know in reponding to reporters' questions.
He gathers together the appropriate department heads, the city's attorney and several citizens. Someone takes the role of the press, the rest play themselves. They all ask whatever questions come to mind.
"You have the facts, it's how you present them that makes the difference," says Ballantyne.
9) Take the initiative whatever the news.
Go to the press with stories you think they will be interested in. A careful reading of the paper or a talk with the reporter or editor should give you an idea of what kinds of stories interest the paper.
Depending on your relationship with the press, you can initiate the coverage either through casual conversation, a direct phone call to the reporter, or through a press release.
Dailies write their own stories; the press release is merely a means of stimulating their interest. So a phone call might be enough.
While that is true of weeklies also, because of a shortage of staff, some weeklies use the press release verbatim, so if you go this route be prepared to develop a journalistic style that is clear and concise.
And know that most papers are deluged with press releases. So use them sparingly either to report "soft" news, such as an advance of an event, the hiring of a new employee, the receipt of an award or to state a position that you do not want to be misquoted.
If you do write a press release:
-Print it on letterhead, double spaced, no more than two pages.
-Include the name of a contact person to be reached for further information, and the date. Make sure it reaches the paper in sufficient time; deliver by hand if necessary.
-Use the headline to summarize the story.
-Your "lead" sentence/paragraph is the most critical one. If it does not grab the reader, generate immediate interest, it will get tossed. Limit it to three lines.
-The second paragraph/sentence should contain as much information as possible: the who, what, when and where.
-Use at least two quotes in the story.
-Limit your paragraphs to one sentence each. One thought per sentence.
-Limit the release to two pages or less.
-Keep in mind that not all of the release will be used; so put the most important information up front.
Better than the press release is the column in the local weekly paper, a sort of regular "letter to the editor."
Bethel Town Manager Rodney Lynch holds court in the Oxford County Citizen with his column: From The Bethel Town Office, where he explains and explores the issues.
10) Don't favor one newspaper or station over another.
I1) Provide the reporter with feedback.
Everyone needs feedback. Good and bad.
Don't mess with the minor inaccuracies in a story. Realize that not everyone reads the paper as closely as you do. Take the news with a grain of salt, especially the bad news.
However, if a story contains inaccurate information that is important, contact the reporter and ask for an explanation and a correction. Don't go over the reporter's head except as a last resort. Remember, you are interested in developing a long-term relationship with the reporter assigned to your beat.
12) Know the written law regarding freedom of information.
Maine's Right-to-Know Law: Title 1, MRSA, Section 401-410, has been around since 1959. Reporters are well versed in it; many carry a copy of it with them.
In summary: You must give "reasonable" notice to the public sufficiently in advance of meetings. While the law does not require you to list the agenda, use common sense. You want to build trust and provide information.
Executive sessions are where issues are discussed, not decided. No final action can be taken in executive session. The elected officials in Bethel were recently reminded of this in an editorial, where they were admonished for accepting the resignation of the town manager in an executive session.
Most documents are public records. But you have five days to respond to a request for them if you have any doubt or if providing the documents immediately could be a hardship.
(For details of the law, see Geoff Herman's article in this issue.)
13) It takes time to develop a trusting relationship.
It takes time and hard work and honesty to develop a relationship with a reporter that is based on mutual trust and respect. Whether you like it or not, the press is your main access to the public. Work at it so it works for you.
EDITOR'S NOTE: TOWNSMAN Assistant Editor Jo Josephson reported local government news in Franklin County for daily and weekly newspapers for almost ten years.