Local Government Magazine
Communication

How to work with the media

Forget media training, says Elizabeth Hughes. Instead, focus on learning about the media, how they operate and what they need – just as you would with any other relationship.

If you think the media are out to get you – you’re wrong. And on the rare occasion they are, you probably deserve it. I have heard countless times variations of the following from local government people: ‘[insert name of journalist here] is biased’, ‘the article in the [insert media title here] was misleading’, ‘[insert name of journalist here] has an agenda’ and ‘we need to deal with the media better’.

These statements are invariably followed up at some point by an instruction to the chief executive or communication manager to: “organise some media training”.

Media training seems to be a rite of passage in local government shored up by a persistent belief that a few tricks and new tactics will change the way your council is portrayed by the local media. I haven’t seen it happen yet.

I have seen some councils being portrayed well in the media. Their common characteristics are that they have developed strong relationships with media, they have clear, consistent processes and agreements on what is appropriate (even in crisis situations), and they treat their media as partners in the democratic process.

These councils understand media learning.

Media learning is turning the telescope the other way around and viewing the media in the same way you would any important relationship.

  • What do I need to know about you?
  • What do you need from me?
  • How can we turn this to our mutual advantage?

Another way of putting this – if you want to stick to your prejudice about them being out to get you – is ‘know the enemy’.

Journalists

The job of the media is to convey things that are newsworthy (see “Newsworthiness” box).

The essence of the media’s business is to gather facts, that tell stories, that sell media products.

And it’s a journalist’s job to find the facts and report them as stories. Preferably fast facts. And even more preferably, facts from the horse’s mouth (sometimes any horse will do) and with graphics that make it simple.

Across New Zealand there are currently around 800 print and radio journalists earning an average of $55,000 a year (source: Careers NZ website).

Traditional journalist jobs are rapidly declining and while journalists are chasing you for information they are also probably trying to do two or three stories at any one time to come up with the fastest and newest news stories.

Journalists, like most of us, just want to do a good job. For them this is measured by:

1) getting things right

2) getting stories ahead of the competition, and

3) taking the least time possible to deliver numbers 1) and 2).

Journalists also now use social media, more than reading your agendas and media releases, to source story ideas they turn into ‘news’. Conflict, and examples of when things go wrong, are pretty much going to drive their interest. Partly this is because of the intrinsic newsworthiness of such things (see “Newsworthiness” box below) but also because journalists are desperately short of time and, probably, understanding.

The media

The media is a global term used to describe news products: newspapers, TV, radio, magazines (including their online versions). News products compete with each other for advertising investment.

Advertisers want the product that attracts most people. Most people, in theory, are attracted by what the media believes is newsworthy. In the online market this demand now requires fresh news measured in seconds.

Unfortunately for local government this means news media products are unlikely to be interested in reproducing things your council wants to be newsworthy. Nor are they likely to be interested in providing a platform for neutralised discourse on matters of long-term gain.

However the media is useful for:

  • conveying things that are newsworthy;
  • acting as a barometer of issues that excite the public’s interest;
  • demonstrating that conflict is the by-product of a healthy democracy; and
  • offering a forum for the exchange of opinions, experiences and perspectives.

Creating the rules

Simple and clear policies and procedures for dealing with the media (including protocols / codes of conduct) are essential. Knowing these, practising them and applying them, is part of media learning.

Implementing effective policies and procedures for the entire time you’re delivering business as usual will be invaluable when that one-off event strikes (tragedy, natural disaster, financial shenanigans, embarrassing failure in service delivery) and you are in the spotlight. Don’t wait until the event happens and then try to make up the rules as you go. This never works out well – and it shows.

Fundamentals of media learning include knowing:

  • that you should never, ever lie;
  • you do not have to respond on the spot to any media enquiry. It’s always okay to ask for some time or not to know the answer to a question – remember the journalist wants to get it right as well;
  • how to use your communication staff to support you. They know how to navigate this stuff;
  • how to correct a mistake when being interviewed. You are allowed to make them – just don’t let the mistake become the story;
  • what makes a good interview and what makes an excruciatingly damaging one. There are numerous and recent local government examples available.

And if you really think the relationship with the media is at rock bottom then it might be time to sit down and think about how to mend the fence. A good start is by looking at what you can fix on your side first.

This is media learning.


Newsworthiness

The following are well established ‘news values’ that determine the newsworthiness of a story.

  • Unexpectedness.
  • 
Impact – the number of people affected or likely to be interested.
  • Conflict.
  • Prominence of the protagonist (person or organisation).
  • 
Location, location, location – how relevant the story is to 
a particular location.
  • Currency.
  • How bizarre.
  • Human interest.

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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