Whether you think of the media as the Fourth Estate or a pain in the neck, communications strategies have become increasingly dynamic for modern state legislatures.
“I’ve been fortunate to work for three senate presidents who very much respected the media as an integral part of the democratic process,” Jacque Bland, director of communications for the West Virginia Senate, told a session at NCSL’s 2023 Base Camp. “We cannot function as a democracy without the media. And while (politicians) may not always enjoy what the media is doing or the media’s role in the process, they would not want to operate in a system without it because it is critical to a functioning democracy.”
“While (politicians) may not always enjoy what the media is doing or the media’s role in the process, they would not want to operate in a system without it because it is critical to a functioning democracy.”
—Jacque Bland, director of communications, West Virginia Senate
NCSL’s Ta’Vion Hampton, who led the session with Bland asked about transparency and the relationship between the state and a reporter when exchanging information.
“Our executive branch takes a very different approach to this, but my approach—and it has not failed us yet—is if we have these documents and they’re available, here you go,” Bland says. “There’s no reason to make it hard on you and make you have to file a FOIA and wait five days for us to turn it around. I’ll just send it over.”
But transparency alone isn’t enough. Bland said she knew a member of the legislature who would not talk to the media. “I was very respectful of that,” she says. “I would tell the reporter, ‘I’m sorry, he doesn’t. He just does not.’ And when coverage would not go the way he would hope, as it often did, he would say, ‘What are we doing about this? What are we doing with this?’”
“And one day, we had what I like to call the ‘meet Jesus,’ where I sat with him and said, ‘I understand your reluctance. You had a rough campaign. People were a little brutal to you. It wasn’t easy. But what I’d like to kind of help you understand is that they’re going to tell the story with you or without you, and at least if you participate, your voice is in there.’”
The media landscape has undergone a massive transformation since Bland’s first days on the job. “My first session was 2015,” she says. “The statehouse press corps that had the pressroom downstairs, there were probably 10 to a dozen of them there every day. There is now one who comes every day.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was a major catalyst for virtual reporting. “Obviously, COVID changed how everybody does everything for every reason,” Bland says. “When people stopped coming here, a lot of people just never really started coming back because we’ve made it, at least on the Senate side, we’ve made it so easy to not come in.”
Case in point: The West Virginia Legislature’s website “has got to be among the best, if not the best, in the country, in terms of what we have available,” she says. “If that is easier for you and your job as a reporter to watch it online, type it up at your office, that’s great.”
The digitization trend encompasses the capitol complex as well as the media, Bland adds, and that means the days of 6 p.m. deadlines are behind us. “Now the deadline is all the time,” she says. “It doesn’t stop even if it’s an actual story for air. Chances are the television station will want a web version to put up as soon as possible.”
A Bit of Advice
“One of the best things that a communications professional can do for themselves—and I know this is going to sound crazy—is do not take yourself so seriously that you don’t stop to have a little fun with these people,” Bland says. “My legislative session is part time, so we’re 60 days and the clock is a continuous 60 days. And as those days tick by, things get worse and people get short. People are sleep deprived, people are hungry. I completely recognize that. I am not the only one who is hungry, who is tired, who is just at my information-capacity overload. These people who do come here to cover the session, they’re feeling that way too. So I approach them with an attitude of humility and service.”
In other words, “Just be cool. As my mom would say, ‘Everyone, just be cool.’ Then I think it really works out better for everyone. So my advice is to always go into this with kindness and a servant heart, because you are a public servant.”
Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelancer.