Question of the Month

October-December 2004:

What suggestions do you have for dealing with the press?  (What bad experiences have you had, and what lessons have you learned?  Do you have suggestions for ensuring that the press accurately conveys the messages in your reports?)

Editor’s note:  Readers looking for answers to these questions may wish to consult a recent article on this topic by Gene Rose of the National Conference of State Legislatures in the Fall 2004 edition of NLPES News.  The article, called “How to Get Maximum Exposure for Your Office and Reports,” is at the following site: 

Jim Pellegrini,Montana

We seem to have had good experiences with dealing with the media.  I think this comes from first - getting to know the media personnel you are dealing with on audit materials.  This is easier in a less populated state.  There are certain protocols that are followed and both parties understand.  They know that they need to approach the Legislative Auditor to get access to other staff.  We know we do not talk to the media without first confirming with the Legislative Auditor.  This process has not hindered their access to us.

This understanding also extends to the fact that we are not "hiding" information and that we will only speak to information that is in the report.  That said, the media now tends to just use our written reports to present their information.  Any questions they are asking tend to be generated from reading the reports.  This makes it easier for us to respond since it is "report material", or outside the scope of our work and we have no response.

To ensure that material is accurately reported is not completely in our control.  I know we can be control freaks at times (It's our job!).  The media has to compose a story from a number of sources.  We can only hope that if they use the report, and we only talk to the report, the information will be accurate.  At times, we will have to clarify material that may have been sensationalized in a headline, but these are few.

 Just being available, approachable, honest and working within an understood protocol helps both parties.  

Urs Bauder, Hawaii   

Generally, members of the press convey statements accurately.  However, one needs to be alert to the possibility of statements being quoted in a context other than the one represented in the interview.  Also, some reporters pretend to seek "explanations" of processes or situations and then turn the response into an official position of the auditor's office.

In our office, analysts are allowed to respond to (fairly numerous) journalists' requests for information.  Inexperience has lead to one or two analysts finding their names in the paper and being quoted making official pronouncements that they had not expected or intended. 

The lesson learned is that analysts should be very careful to avoid stating opinions and stick to providing information that helps a reporter understand an issue or process.  One should clarify at the outset that anything said is off the record and refer any questions with potential for use as opinion or official position statement to the auditor or public relations person. 

Ken Levine, Texas Sunset Commission  

First of all, we limit who talks to the press.  Since we are small, we do not have a "press" person.  The Director is given the opportunity to answer all press contacts.  Often, he will delegate back to a project manager or supervisor to talk to the press person.  This decision is primarily based on the experience of the project manager and the nature of the issue under discussion.

In either case, we do not give opinions, other than those stated in the report.  Opinions are for the members of the Sunset Commission who are elected to give those opinions.  We will reiterate and explain items from a report, give information on what actions took place at a Commission meeting, explain how the process works regarding a particular agency or issue, and correct incorrect statements that the reporter makes when asking questions.  So if they ask "Why did the Sunset Commission take a certain action" or "What action do you expect the Legislature to take regarding your recommendation" do not answer. Politely turn down the question and suggest they contact one of the Commission members for a response.  Actually we spend a lot of time just explaining Sunset and how it works.  It is amazing how little most reporters know about Sunset or even about state government in general.

Many years ago, in my salad days, I was asked by a reporter why we recommended increasing environmental penalties.  I answered with an opinion that the big companies who have the biggest violations could easily afford the current low penalties as a cost of doing business.  I even named one of the companies as an example (which I will not do here...)  As you would expect, that quote was used and I was in hot water.  Lesson learned.  However, if a legislator had said the same thing, it would have been fine.  That is their role, not mine.

When dealing with reporters, one has to change their usual method of conversation.  Keep your answers short and directly on point.  Stop when you finish your point and don't worry about the silence that follows.  Reporters are trained to see if you will fill the silence with something juicy.  If at all possible, don't ask if you can make a comment "off the record."  This phrase means different things to different people.  If for some reason, you have to go this route, make sure the reporter verbally agrees that your conversation from that point is not for attribution.  Make the reporter say this.  Again, doing this may not be comfortable for you, but necessary in a conversation with a reporter.

Finally, if you are not sure of an answer, say that you don't know.  If the question is appropriate to your office's work, offer to get the answer for the reporter as soon as possible.  Then follow up quickly. Remember that reporters are often working on deadline, and maintaining good relationship with the press is important.  Do not say "I'll get back to you" unless you intend to do so.

While I would say the majority of articles about our Sunset work contain errors, most reporters are trying to get it right.  If the reporter seems off-base, you may want to break the silence rule, and offer a brief piece of information to help the reporter get back on track.  If the reporter is clearly working an angle, don't bother.  Do not expect balanced reporting in this case, and I doubt anything you say will change the angle of the story.

Remember, the press is not your friend, but we can use each other to help achieve our goals.

Phil Leone, Virginia 

The press is an important advocate and supporter of our work.  It is important to build an honest, professional relationship with the journalists who cover our meetings and report on our studies.  We make every effort to be responsive to their questions and requests for information. We educate the media about our work and the oversight roles we play in government.  The press is the primary means for communicating our studies to the public and, yes, to legislators.  In fact, the press can help in the utilization of our findings and recommendations.

Ethel Detch, Tennessee 

We've recently begun writing press releases for our reports which, if they get used, help convey the most important points of the reports.  We also tried having a communications specialist for a while to act as a liaison with the media.  Both efforts have generally improved the visibility of the reports which overall has been a positive trend. However, in one case, we had written a statement unclearly that also got the additional media attention and resulted in some unintended consequences.   I think we learned that when we ratchet up the visibility we have to be extra vigilant in assuring that what it says is what we mean.