Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

The 10, the 5, TOUCHDOWN!

leave a comment »

football

Let’s talk about spokespeople. 

Often times, they are employees of the organization they represent, meaning they are staff rather than contractors.  That is an important distinction because it can affect the vehemence with which they defend their organization against allegations.  It means they may likely be emotionally invested in their co-workers by believing they not only have to protect the mission of the organization, but the relationships they have with the people in it.  And they likely have had to work very hard over a long period of time to convince their organization’s management structure to (1) trust that they will represent the organization faithfully to the press, and (2) convince that organization to let only them be the official voice when bad things happen.  Neither of these are easy to accomplish.

Organizations, by and large, have a bury their head in the sand reaction whenever something happens that attracts media attention.  Even good things that draw media focus can make managers unskilled with the media circle wagons.  Management views outreach as exposure.  A good media relations person, by contrast, builds relationships with the media.  They want to talk to reporters.  These two attitudes conflict frequently within organizations.  Only by showing aplomb and bringing consistently good press do PR people convince managers to relax when a reporter calls.  That’s the trust part.

Being the only voice, that’s harder because if an organization has not had a spokesperson or if that spokesperson has been ineffective, a new spokesperson must establish ground rules for employees in their interaction with the media.  And for employees who feel that talking to the media is no big deal, this can be an uphill fight for the spokesperson.  At some point, I’ll talk about bosses that say dumb stuff.  But with regards to employees, those unaware of particular company policy or discreet legalities can say some incredibly stupid things that can live in newsprint or on the Internet forever.  Management that has not made it clear that every employee must run any media contact through the spokesperson is setting them up to be called after hours by a reporter to confirm something that maybe, should’ve never been made public.

So a recent story by NPR was illustrative in showing how PR people can fail and how the media can end up doing an end run around them.  The US Customs and Border Patrol, an agency of US Homeland Security is at the center of scrutiny over the deaths of several dozen migrants that have crossed the southern border illegally in recent years.  When NPR’s John Burnett visited a CBP facility in April and asked questions of an official about the hierarchy of response officers must employ when confronted with rock throwing migrants, the female spokesperson abruptly ended the interview.  Maybe this happened because the NPR reporter asked questions that were not part of any pre-interview briefing between the reporter and the CBP.  But NPR most likely made it very clear that they wanted to know about CBP policy regarding hierarchy of response.  The interview was probably cut short because the agency was so hyper-sensitive to this issue, that hyper-sensitivity had trickled down to the spokesperson.  Perhaps management told her that under no circumstances do we want to address hierarchy of response since addressing it opens up the possibility of liability.  And she, being a good soldier, fell on that sword by turning away a national news reporter with a running recorder from a pre-arranged interview.

It didn’t look or sound good. Hear it here at about 2:18.

Months later, NPR went straight to the new head of the CBP, R. Gil Kerlikowske.  He’s had a reputation for prying open agencies by holding news conferences within 24 hours of incidents with negative press potential.  This had proved a winning strategy with the media but ran smack up against inertia by bureaucracies that hate bright lights. He is now doing the same thing with the CBP and told NPR that he would not only be more transparent but that he would specifically address directly the issue of hierarchy of response in a public way.

There is no doubt that the new manager and his new media policy is what got NPR in to see him.  Otherwise, that would’ve been impossible and NPR would’ve had to rely on leaks or other means and methods to discover agency intentions.  To get an idea of how impenetrable agencies can be, think about how open the NSA or the IRS are with the media.  Mr. Kerlikowske’s efforts are a big deal.

Getting back to that spokesperson, she may still have her job.  After all, she was just doing her job.  But I have no doubt that the irony was not lost on her, especially if she comes from a news reporting background.  Spokespeople tend to be the best informed and the most tuned into general society within the organization.  They read the mood of the surrounding media and balance it against what they know is happening inside the organization.  Then, they give their best advice to management.  It’s possible that spokesperson, from her own experience with crisis management, told her managers to be more open.  But she was probably overruled by a higher media authority, likely a public affairs office at Homeland Security, a cabinet level agency.

So you can bet that when NPR did its end run around her, if she still had that job, she may have felt a little betrayed.  It’s her job, ultimately, to do what she’s told.  But betrayal is not a feeling spokespeople are unfamiliar with.  You can trust me on that one.  For sure, I’ll bet she thought long and hard about how her own years of experience were considered (or not).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: