Tuesday, December 1, 2015

"What do you do?"

It's a simple, innocuous question, but for those who run the show at our organizations, it can give them fits.

A fairly innocuous scene
Let's set the stage, first. A reporter shows up on scene at one of your facilities unannounced. They come over to one of the employees raking mulch in the hot sun and ask him or her, "So, what are you doing?"

Oh, please just stop talking already ...
Now, there are three types of responses these workers can have, based on their agency's media contact policies. First, they may have absolutely no guidance from their parent agency. The workers may engage in a lively 20-minute conversation with the reporter about how they love their jobs, how great it is to be out in the field, how it's awesome that the city sprang for such expensive mulch ... oops. Maybe the reporter is looking to find out just how much taxpayer money is being spent on mulch, and now your employee is on camera talking about the price of mulch as the reporter asks more questions.

Silence is golden, duct tape is silver
Another response might be the strict enforcement of a policy where line workers are absolutely under no circumstances allowed to speak with the media. When the reporters arrive, the workers flee the scene or, if the reporter manages to ask a question, the worker fires off a terse "No Comment," or "I'm not allowed to talk with members of the media," and walks away. I mean, come on, it's not like the reporter can't see that that employee is raking mulch.

It's OK to talk about what you are doing
Then there is the third, and probably most optimal way to handle this type of interaction, but it has to start way before the reporters arrive on scene. That is to craft a media contact policy where employees are empowered to speak with reporters about what is is that they are doing, but to refer more difficult or challenging questions to a more appropriate staff member to handle accordingly.

Why adopt this model of media interaction? I think the answer is pretty obvious. It's the Goldilocks effect. Basically,  if you use the first model, you run the risk of having someone who may not know all of the details of the situation to speculate, offer conjecture or just generally run off at the mouth, quite possibly not communicating your organization's message clearly. The second approach is just too hard, and not only shows the reporter that he or she is not welcome, but that the public should be suspicious as well. 

But, that third model, wow. It allows the reporter to get what he or she needs to do the story while putting a welcoming face on the organization, yet still allowing for more qualified staff members to tackle the tough message points. 

Basically, it's just right. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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