Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Managing Your Message in the Media

When I was in journalism school at the University of Regina, I learned a few things about how to be a reporter. I say a few things, because that is exactly what I mean. I learned how to write for news paper, radio, magazine, and television.  I learned how to build a story. I learned how to interview people and ask questions, and I learned a little bit about ethics and the law.  

I have had the occasion to experience the other side of the interview over the past two weeks. Once as a reader of a poorly written story, and another time as an interviewee in what I hope will not be a poorly executed, imbalanced reputational mess.

Inexperience is the main issue when something goes awry.  Professional media usually understands and appreciates how to engage with the community so that they live to write another day. Reporting is a craft.  However the distinction between good and not so good is not always an issue of age or experience.  Some people, even in their early careers, are natural born story tellers who understand the human experience and who have a natural understanding of the art of listening and story telling. 

When I think back to my days as a young reporter and student, we were eager to tell stories that were full of controversy.  In fact, quite often, we would create controversy were none existed, not because we were making things up, but because we ourselves were overly dramatic.  We were working in a bubble where supposedly we could not affect others in the process of learning. Everything seemed to be turned up on high volume, whether it needed to be or not. 

Looking back now, I can see that what I learned in journalism school about the art of story telling and more importantly, story listening, I could fit in a thimble.  The rest I learned working in the world as a writer, reporter, communications professional, business strategist and publisher. 

There are some nuggets of knowledge passed on to me from my teachers that I carry with me still to this day.  The thing that I remember the most is that good journalism gives a balanced view of a story that provokes thinking and dialogue.  Bad journalism is is the subject of dialogue.  

Jim McKenzie taught me about ethics, and how important it is for the journalist or story teller to know his or her own line before crossing it. He would send us off in pursuit of a story, knowing full well we were overly dramatic and inexperienced about life.  One semester I had taken a magazine writing class with Jim.  The subject of the magazine was the sex trade.  We were each assigned a part of the trade. My part was child prostitution.  I remember the first night my partner and I went out to research the story.  

I did not see what I thought I would see.  I saw children in low income neighbourhoods. As a mother, I quickly found my line.  Who were we to impose our judgments? We did not know these people or their lives.  We did not understand the impact that we could have by simply asking a question or giving someone a title by virtue of the environment, which we could only see through our own middle class view of the world.  I knew that if that were my child, I would probably punch someone out for approaching or passing judgement. 

I went back to my professor and told him that I would not do the assignment.  Instead I chose to research the issue of sexual exploitation of children on the streets via public records. Jim has since passed on, but I think of him and his words often in my work.

After graduating from journalism  school,  I worked as a reporter for a time, mostly focusing on feature writing and community stories.  I learned that it is indeed a privilege and responsibility to treat a person's story with as much care as you would your own.  

I later went to work on the "dark side" as we used to call it in journalism school: public relations and communications. I used to think of it more as "dimly lit" but as my experience grew, I began to see clearly the importance of responsible media management from the business perspective. 

My job was to help the organizations manage their message in and through the media.  I learned the art of writing news releases, dealing with media inquiries, and writing media Q & As that would anticipate the craziest questions a journalist could ask and craft an answer.  I would write key messages, preparing my executive for the possibility of a media call.  

 When the journalist called, a dance would ensue.  He or she would ask the question, and the interviewee would give an answer that was in line with the key messages already determined. This dance continues until something breaks in the process.  As the reporter asks the same question in a myriad of different ways trying to prompt the quote he or she is looking for, the interviewee continues to stay on message.  

There is a method to this madness.  Business of all sizes need to protect their reputation. News reporters like to write and tell enticing stories.  So the key is to find the balance in between these often opposing objectives. 

Large organizations have departments of people who can help them manage the media.  Small business owners do not.  And so, I offer my experience should the media call.  Here are some things to be aware of. 

1. Understand the purpose of the interview. 
2. Understand the journalist's intention behind the interview.  You can ask for questions ahead of time.  
3. Have key messages that summarize what you want to say. 
4. Say those things, and only those things. 
5. Comment only on what you know to be true and your own experience. 
6. Do not comment on the business or behaviours of others.  Defer the question and suggest the reporter contact the appropriate person for that information. 
7. Ask for approval of the content before it goes to print. 
8. Beware of the last question and the casual conversation that can follow an "interview".After you think the interview is over, you will relax a bit. That's when the reporter uses the "fork dropper" question, as my journalism professor used to call it. This is the question that disarms you and causes you to react and say something reactional or off-the-cuff, thus feeding their agenda and not yours.  
9. Own your story. Tell your story.  Do not get coerced into telling someone's  story in a "he said - she said" interview structure.  Stick to the facts. No opinions.  Be objective.  Speak in complete sentences.  Do not use cliches.  Do not be funny.  Do not say something that can be taken out of context and used to sensationalize the story. 
10. Take the high road at all times.  Never, ever wallow.