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Columbia Business Monthly

Good Media Relationships Benefit All Involved

Nov 01, 2017 02:18PM ● Published by Emily Stevenson

By Reba Hull Campbell

When it comes to being successful working with the news media, the bottom line is that relationships are key. This was the conclusion from several speakers during two days of workshops hosted by the Municipal Association of S.C. and the S.C. Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America that focused on media relations and crisis management.

Paul Vance, former lieutenant with the Connecticut State Police, served as the sole police spokesman in aftermath of the 2015 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. He brought front lines experience in crisis management to the workshops. He said, “Existing media relationships meant a high level of trust between local law enforcement and reporters immediately following the shootings.”

At the first press conference following the shootings, Vance said he set a series of ground rules with the media. These reporters were from local news outlets as well as the large networks and international publications. “I will be your contact,” Vance told the reporters. He made it clear he would hold press conferences every 90 minutes and always took questions.

“Taking questions at every press conference helped us understand where the press was going with their stories,” Vance said. This also helped the police track what rumors may be floating around.

He described several incidents during the weeks following the shootings when having trusting relationships with the media paid off. This was especially true in ensuring the privacy of the victims’ families.

Vance said that his top priority in dealing with the media after the shootings was making sure nothing happened or was said that could cause harm to the families. Because members of the news media trusted him and the information he was sharing, they were more inclined to respect his requests about staying away from the grieving families.

Vance’s advice to his staff during the crisis carries over into dealings with the media in any situation. He approached building media relationships by treating reporters as a customer. “When the press calls, you help, and that’s what I told my staff to do.”

The same strategies work when working with reporters on a daily basis.

Andy Shain, Columbia bureau chief for the Post and Courier, said having good relationships with reporters can not only help get your story covered but it also means trust when a crisis occurs. Reporters and communicators both have a job to do, he noted. Understanding that humanizes the exchange. “Plus the 24-hour news cycle means PR people and reporters have to work together.”

Even in situations that call for caution in releasing information, two experienced public information officers and a veteran reporter agreed that a “no comment” response isn’t acceptable.

Ryan Johnson, public information officer in North Charleston, said it’s appropriate to take the reporter’s question and tell him you’ll get back to him with an answer as soon as you can.

He called the “no comment” issue “a false elephant in the room,” and that he’s never felt the need to say it.
 
“Don’t not talk to a reporter because you’re scared of what might come out of your mouth,” Johnson said. “If you’re the one who’s designated to talk to reporters, you’re usually the most knowledgeable one, and you do have the information, and you do have comments.”

John Monk, long-time reporter for The State newspaper, said he also saw no useful purpose in the words “no comment.”
 
“You can serve yourself better in a lot of unfolding situations like crises, fires or hostages, by saying  ‘We’ve got an evolving situation here,’” said Monk.

“And then, you say anything that can help the public, because you’re not just speaking to a reporter. You’re speaking to 10,000 people or 100,000 people, or as in Houston (where catastrophic flooding occurred in August due to Hurricane Harvey), maybe millions of people. So you say, ‘We’ve got an evolving situation, and what can help the public is this: They should stay away from the northern part of Houston. It’s all under water.’ Anything nuts and bolts you can say.”

Adam Myrick, public information officer for the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department, suggested going beyond using “no comment” to avoid even saying the word “comment.”

He said it’s best to try to be transparent. But if the topic of press inquiries is one that pertains to a lawsuit, for example, he said it’s better for an organization’s spokesperson to simply say its practice is not to “discuss” pending litigation, if that’s the case.

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