May 24, 2016 - by Todd Robson
It’s a situation that happens every day in the media relations world.
A reporter calls and they need someone for an interview fast.
This is how the scenario should play out:
Step 1 - The media calls a communications officer with a simple request for information and an interview on a recently announced program.
Step 2 – The communication officer identifies a suitable spokesperson.
Step 3 – The reporter and spokesperson talk, arrange an interview -- and there is some excellent earned media and exposure for your institution.
It sounds simple enough.
But, not so fast.
In reality, things often fall apart on step 3 and the process turns into something that borderlines on a Monty Python skit.
Based on my experience and others I’ve consulted with – it often plays out something like this:
The communications officer contacts the suitable spokesperson’s Manager to ensure it is okay they can speak to the expertise and subject matter they specialize in. Then, they have to loop in that manager with a Director and CEO to inform them of the media request and the plan. And then if the Director agrees, the CEO gets on board. Or perhaps the Director agrees only after checking with the CEO and agreeing to the spokesperson.
Once that’s nailed down somehow…the CEO wonders if speaking points are required and will only proceed once the Manager and Director have signed off on them.
After the speaking points are finally approved, speaking points and the media request are sent to the identified spokesperson.
Then the communications officer (remember him or her?) responds to the media that they have found an expert and will arrange a time for interview. The communications officer has the Manager, Director, CEO and spokesperson each sign off on paper-generated Media Request Form for filing and safe records keeping.
And, then…..finally……if the media hasn’t already gone elsewhere, the reporter and the spokesperson finally speak – about 18 steps later. It’s actually more steps than it takes to assemble my daughter’s bike or the average IKEA nightstand. It’s cumbersome, ineffective and costs the organization a lot of time in person power for something that doesn’t need to be this difficult.
And the reality is … this spokesperson is a paid professional with a Master’s degree who was hired for the subject matter they specialize in. The media request was related to a media release issued by the organization. With a simple approval process and a pro-active approach to media, this could have been easier for everybody with an immediate turnaround and a positive outcome.
Think this is a joke? It’s not. In fact, there’s a Communications Officer’s support group that meets every Thursday to share similar situations (I’m being cheeky).
Media will appreciate that sensitive issues take time to respond to. In fact, a lot of media relish the thought the there are people scrambling to answer the tough questions.
What drives media crazy is having to wait hours for what should be a simple, safe and low-risk reply. They likely already know the answer, they just need the expertise to lend it credibility and verification.
(Photo courtesy: CBS Television Studios)
So does your Communications Process need an institutional intervention?
When you make it hard for media to get easy answers, they might start looking elsewhere. Odds are they will. Consider this:
Do you have a grading system for media requests?
- Low-risk asks can be seen coming and responses pre-approved or left in the hands of your very competent staff.
- High risk asks mean approval and oversight. People will get that. As well, it will lend a tone of seriousness to the situation.
Do you know the reporter or media outlet?
- A strong relationship needs faith on both sides.
- Known reporters and news outlets survive on reputation. Expect them to be professional and trust that they’ll get it right.
Trust your Communications Team – Don’t Micro Manage
- Media relations isn’t a science – it’s an art where experience matters most.
- Communications Officers likely know the media and most come from a media background.
- They’ll know the angles, they scan the media and can likely predict the questions.
- Empower them to save you time and rely on their instincts.
- Too many Communications Officers ask “Why did you hire me?” when they aren’t trusted on the simplest of things.
Most institutions have a rigorous vetting process – so why the worry?
- Didn’t you hire these people – rely on your staff and let them be accountable.
- Fewer steps saves time, reduces confusion and meets the need of a low-risk ask.
- Less micromanaging = more trust. Morale is a big deal in any workplace.
So when the media calls, here’s my advice. Take a deep breath. Assess the risk. And arrange the interview as soon as possible and with as little maintenance and anxiety as possible.
The media get the information they want, your institution gets the earned media and free exposure it wants and your Communications Team maintains a reputation as a group that can deliver content on deadline and ‘gets’ the information game.
Remember – in today’s media – it’s all about speed.
The easier you make it for media, the more the phone will ring.