Media Relations 101: How Access Begets Accuracy in Journalism
Being accessible to the media pays off in accurate reporting…
When I worked as a senior media spokesman at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), I once had to coordinate a major TV news story while receiving outpatient physical therapy for a back injury.
As I lay face down on the treatment table my Blackberry rang. I always kept the device close at hand to ensure my accessibility to journalists, a critically important component of mastering media relations.
On the phone that afternoon was an investigative producer for ABC “World News Tonight” who had obtained my number from a colleague. He was interested in producing a story for the evening news about sexual harassment of teenagers in the workplace, per a national EEOC initiative.
Despite being in the middle of my physical therapy session, I was able to begin facilitating coordination of a broadcast news report which ultimately aired to millions of viewers nationwide. The story helped increase awareness and vigilance about sexual harassment of teenage workers, many of whom are on their first jobs.
However, had I been unreachable at the outset, the producer may have turned to other organizations for key sourcing and interviews in producing the story.
SOS to West Coast
I recall another occasion in which a circuit court judge in Southern California announced a big ruling on a closely watched EEOC discrimination lawsuit. The case involved a Hollywood studio and an assistant producer of a blockbuster film. The court decision was announced late in the day Pacific Time, about 5:00 p.m. (8:00 p.m. in Washington, DC).
Unfortunately, I had no advance notice of the ruling. The timing surprised everyone. I became aware of the breaking news from a reporter with the Associated Press (AP) who called me at home on deadline. EEOC officials in the Los Angeles office weren’t answering the phone. Maybe they had all left for Happy Hour or to hit the beach?
Thus, I was the last resort representing the EEOC. However, I was kicking up my feet at the time and looking forward to a quiet evening at home after a long day.
In the event that I was unreachable to the media, the article mostly likely would have pointed out the following:
- “EEOC officials were unavailable for comment,” or
- “EEOC failed to immediately respond,” or
- “EEOC officials could not be reached.”
The aforementioned types of negative news citations are the media relations equivalent of committing a cardinal sin. It’s simply an unacceptable “mission fail” from a public relations (PR) standpoint.
Moreover, the internal blowback would have boomeranged from the top down regardless of who was to blame.
It’s an unfortunate reality that PR folks almost always get castigated by the “powers that be” for negative news, and must fall on their swords to fight another day. That’s just par for the course.
Therefore, once my “Bat Phone” rang I sprang into action like Batman at Wayne Manor. I desperately tried contacting our L.A. office but only received “radio silence” (no reply). Fortunately, I had the personal cell number of the EEOC Los Angeles Regional Attorney who dutifully took my call and provided the information needed. I handled the media inquiry going forward into the night.
Not Over Yet
Long story short, I was able to provide the AP with accurate information on a timely basis. That was the good news. But it wasn’t over yet, as bad news surfaced in the forthcoming story.
There were technical errors in the AP’s first version which hit the newswires, reflecting negatively on the EEOC. Further, the article was now live and circulating to other media as the clock ticked away.
It was about 9:00 p.m. on the East Coast when I checked the internet and noticed the mistakes. I now had to move at breakneck speed in contacting the AP bureau in L.A. to get a corrected version posted ASAP. This involved a lot of back-and-forth with the editors.
Finally, at about 10:30 p.m. (Eastern Time), the AP posted an updated version of the article that was factually accurate. The errors had been corrected just in time. The updated version subsequently appeared the next morning in hundreds of newspapers, in addition to online news outlets.
Had I not been available to the media after hours, then the wrong information would have been widely circulated and repeated.
This would have resulted in a crisis communication situation for the EEOC, with my team and I being held accountable.
Lesson: if you work in media relations, especially at a high level, it’s essential to avail yourself to reporters around-the-clock. In short, you should relish responsiveness.
Otherwise, you potentially risk inaccurate information spreading like a California wildfire in the Santa Ana winds. This can cause untold PR damage to the organization you represent, not to mention damaging your own credibility.
That’s why the second rule of mastering media relations is this: Access begets accuracy in journalism.
It’s important to remember that the work of media relations has never been the typical 9-to-5 job, per se. Therefore, being a professional communicator in general, and an organizational spokesperson in particular, usually involves working after regular business hours. This includes nights, weekends, holidays, etc. — whenever you least expect it—which is a necessary job requirement in today’s interconnected world.
PR pros must remain mindful that accessibility for journalists pays off in accurate reporting.
Moreover, inaccurate reporting on the organization you represent may have serious consequences for your gainful employment and advancement as a professional communicator.
This is particularly true in today’s boisterous and cluttered digital and social media environment. Hence, it’s your responsibility as a PR pro to be responsive to journalists at all times, not just sometimes or when convenient.
Risking Bad Publicity
Journalists don’t want to receive voicemails or email bounce backs when they contact your organization on deadline. Plus, you don’t want your employer cited in a story as being inaccessible or unresponsive, which is embarrassing and hurts the brand image.
Even though the official work day may technically be over at a time certain, members of the news media still need your help as they “go to press” (journalism jargon).
The reporter is depending on you, the media liaison, to help get the story right the first time.
That’s because editors or producers can have last minute questions or concerns before “putting a story to bed” (more journalism parlance). If so, they turn to the reporters for answers, and the reporters turn to the PR pros for a timely response.
Being inaccessible to a journalist means risking bad publicity being widely circulated, which puts you and your organization in PR jeopardy.
Whether it’s right or wrong, the media outlet frankly doesn’t care if it’s late in the evening or over a weekend when they contact you. They don’t care about family night in your household, whether the kids are sick, or if your cesspool just overflowed.
Journalists want updated information when they need it, which might be on a razor-thin deadline after hours. That’s their job — being accessible and responsive to them is your job.
And, in today’s frenetic Digital Age, if the media gives you the benefit of clarifying or correcting a story before it goes out, any PR pro would be wise to seize the opportunity whether before dawn or after dusk.
If it’s your job to foster successful media relations then it’s imperative to provide journalists with a way to reach you at all times (to the extent possible). This includes providing personal information to VIP journalists, such as your mobile phone, home phone, alternate emails addresses, etc.
The bottom line for PR pros is your organization being portrayed fairly and accurately in the news media.
To that end, accessibility builds trust and yields dividends.
To the contrary, being inaccessible and unreachable creates an aura of animosity and frustration for journalists. This can result in bad media coverage with factual errors, inaccuracies and related embarrassment for you and your organization.
And can you guess who then takes the blame and must clean up the mess? Yes, you and your team. Therefore, if you’re the “go to” person, it’s your ass on the line every time.
Thus, don’t let yourself be caught by the press in a precarious predicament. Don’t be unreachable.
Note: This is the second article of three in a series on mastering media relations. Part one focused on media relationships (see below). Stay tuned for part three on transparency…
You also might like…
- Media Relations 101: The Relationship, Stupid!
- How to Tame the ‘Media Beast’ in Today’s Wild West News World
- Why Traditional Media Still Matters in Today’s Digital Age
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a strategic communications consultant, freelance writer and former federal government spokesman based in the Washington, DC-area. His work experience includes the White House, Congress, OMB and EEOC. A native New Yorker, David was a journalist prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.