Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Public Relations

Biting the Hand that Sort of Feeds You

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Biting the Hand

Kudos to Dave Miller, host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Outloud” for the voicing fears and suspicions of KOPB staff. Mr. Miller was interviewing the new NPR President, Jarl Mohn.  Mr. Mohn had spent much of the conversation talking about the importance of fundraising for the future of NPR, mentioning that the mammoth Ray Kroc (founder of McDonalds) endowment to NPR of a quarter billion dollars in the early 2000s may necessarily be considered “small” in the face of NPR’s future financial needs and fundraising asks.

At one point, Mr. Mohn said he looks forward to “helping” NPR affiliates with their fundraising, to which Mr. Miller, God Bless Him, said that he knows a lot of dedicated people doing fundraising at public radio stations around the country who are already working hard to fundraise, and how do they know that Mr. Mohn’s offer to “help” isn’t just an excuse for NPR HQ to skim more money off the operating budgets of already struggling stations?

Ka-POW!

NPR programs are not cheap. Consider what it costs for a local affiliate just to meet overhead; that’s lights, taxes, licenses, fees. Then, salaries and benefit packages, capital expenditures, lawyers. Then marketing and advertising, maintenance, insurance. And none of that includes the cost of the programs.  I’ve heard pitchers on OPB say that flagship offerings like Morning Edition and All Things Considered can cost a million dollars or more each year.  Then, there’s very popular programs like Science Friday, Here and Now and the relatively new TED Radio Hour.   All of that has to be covered by whatever grants and endowments a station can scrounge. But the center tent pole for any station is fundraising. As a former federal employee, I’m well familiar with the phrase “Hi, I’m from the Government and I’m here to help”. Consider this piece from the Columbia School of Journalism in 2010 that looks how how much it costs to run NPR.  It makes sense that affiliates who’ve got their own thing going don’t necessarily want HQ’s nose under their own tent flap.

And it also doesn’t help that NPR has cycled through five presidents since 1994.  No doubt, local folks look at the turmoil at a place that is supposed to be rock solid and wonder if their own management is a little more stable and locally focused.

Mr. Mohn’s charm offensive had the overtones of a PR campaign. And although he said that if stations didn’t want the help, they didn’t have to take it, you could tell by the occasional edge in his voice that he had heard those concerns before. And now, good journalism or not, KOPB in general and Dave Miller in particular have Mr. Mohn’s attention, if for no other reason, because the station dared to give voice to the question that so many dedicated staffs around the country mutter to each other in hallways and breakrooms.  And for folks who think HQs don’t ever seek recriminations against affiliates for personal slights, a review of Pacifica turmoil might give them more to consider.

George Orwell said journalism is telling something somebody doesn’t want you to tell and everything else is public relations.

OPB – Journalism Done Here.  Good job … and buckle up.

The 10, the 5, TOUCHDOWN!

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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).