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.
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