Friday, November 22, 2013

Proof of Concept

Posted by John Verrico.

Pre-established relationships between reporters and agency spokespersons are never so important as when something goes awry, a piece of equipment you’re demonstrating suddenly doesn’t work, or someone does or says something unexpected.

      It is truly an “oh, s#*t!” moment when, at a press event, someone makes a statement to reporters that is completely out of line with what your story is supposed to be about. It’s worse when it’s one of your own people. Usually, as the agency spokesperson, you have to jump in to clarify or correct the information and try to get story back on track.

      Give them credit, reporters are quick to see when something is askew or is contradictory. Whether or not they use it in their story depends on how it effects the tone and its relevance to the main issue, and even more so on the relationship they have with the spokesperson.

      I had the pleasure of working with Sacramento Police Department spokeswoman Michele Gigante at a press event this week announcing a new virtual training platform for police, fire and emergency medical personnel. The uber video game was designed by the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Army, with input from emergency responders, and simulates a deadly active shooter scenario in a major hotel. The press event was a demonstration of the training with all of the emergency response disciplines interacting with each other in real time.

      Media were encouraged to observe and ask questions of the role players, but not to interrupt the simulation itself. They were welcome to interview the players as their roles ended.

      One police officer’s avatar was killed very early in the action, so, since he was no longer involved in the response training, he was available to provide interviews. Unfortunately, being somewhat disgruntled about being out of play so quickly, the officer ‘s reaction to the training event was quite negative.  He essentially ridiculed the system and implied it had no benefit to the responders.

      Kudos to Gigante for having such an outstanding relationship with her beat reporters that they immediately turned to her and asked to speak with someone else who could provide a more positive interview.

      Kudos also to the reporters from multiple local media outlets for quickly realizing that this one individual’s personal opinion was tainted by his defeat, and for recognizing that the real story was in the successful partnerships, the uniqueness of the training, and it’s ultimate value to the emergency response community.

      Having dissenting opinions in a news piece is important to ensuring a balanced story. Sometimes, however, that dissenting opinion has little significance to the main point. It takes a good reporter to know the difference and whether or not to include it.

      It takes an excellent public affairs officer to develop such trusted relationships that the reporters care enough to differentiate.  

      And that makes all the difference.

We'd love to hear your stories about relationship-building with reporters -- what works, what doesn't, your success stories and your nightmares.


Steve Frank, said...

Sometimes you don't have to know the reporters but rather the story and "the drill." I recently provided just-in-time media training to the manager of a small sanitation district that had had six miles of its sewers wiped out during extraordinary flooding in Colorado in mid-September. Someone in his service area complained to an area tv station because his house was still in a "no-flush" zone. The media training helped the manager, who was working 18-hour days, identify three key messages and how to work them into the interview. He nailed the interview, the work going on in the background supported his message with "proof" about the progress they were making, and the story turned out to be supportive of the district's efforts rather than negative.

John Verrico said...

Media training is an important function that can ensure subject matter experts know how to relate information and can support the overall intent of the story. The challenge is to not let it become rote, rehearsed answers, but instead be an honest dialogue. The media training should help to simplify language, ensure accuracy and understanding, and formatting answers into something usable for media. Scientists and engineers, for example, can be quite long-winded and provide rambling answers (like this one). Media training can help them make their point clearer and more succinctly.