During some of our media training workshops, we occasionally hear participants express frustration with their company’s media relations policy requiring them to obtain approval before talking to reporters. These individuals find it ironic that their company invests time and money for media training, but then curtails their freedom to use that training. And if their corporate headquarters is in a different time zone, obtaining timely approval is often difficult, if not impossible.
We’d like to weigh in on this issue, and propose a possible approach to present-day corporate media relations.
First, some history:
In the not-so-distant past, most organizations had one individual who served as media spokesperson – usually someone in the communications or PR function. Reporters knew who that person was, and accepted him or her as the face and voice of the organization.
That approach seemed to work well. And it did so at a time when a speedy response from the company was less important. Before the 24-hour news cycle, reporters might have hours before they had to file their stories. Companies had lots of time to get their messages approved by lawyers and others in management.
But then things changed:
▪ Reporters wanted to talk to someone other than the “PR flack.” They wanted direct access to the “content expert” – the person closest to the issue or problem.
▪ Media training emerged (The Ammerman Experience was one of the pioneers of this discipline back in the ‘70s.) It provided these new spokespersons with the confidence and competence to represent their organizations.
▪ Media outlets expanded in number, and technology necessitated a much faster response from the interviewee.
These and other developments led many companies to ask non-communication professionals to interact with the news media – but not without developing and enforcing strict approval procedures.
Which brings us back to those frustrations voiced by our workshop participants. If your organization is looking for that balance between spokesperson freedom and corporate oversight, perhaps these suggestions will help:
▪ Establish media relations guidelines and communicate them to all employees. For example, some things to address include:
- Which individuals are authorized to speak to reporters?
- When and how should corporate be notified of a media inquiry?
- Under what circumstances, if any, should a designated spokesperson who cannot reach someone for corporate approval (in a timely fashion) talk to the media?
- What is the company’s position on employee use of social media?
- What about citizen journalists?
- How should errors in reporting be handled?
▪ Ambush or unexpected media inquiries are particularly tricky. Be sure that employees who are not authorized to speak to the media know what to say when politely declining media requests. (To keep them from saying, “I was told not to talk to reporters,” give them more appropriate suggested responses.)
▪ Provide media training, including refresher training, to those individuals who will represent your organization to the news media. (Don’t forget about front-line employees. For example, The Ammerman Experience’s First Responder Media Training is designed to show front-line employees how to interact with the news media until a designated spokesperson arrives.)
▪ Distinguish between routine, easily handled media inquiries and those that are critically important or high risk. For example, a local media inquiry about your company’s contribution to a local charity probably doesn’t require corporate involvement or approval. An inquiry from CNN or the Wall Street Journal about a serious local matter probably does.
▪ Providing spokespersons with templates containing suggested talking points for likely scenarios is a good strategy. But don’t presume you can anticipate every development. Provide macro rather than micro guidance.
▪ Utilize technology (phone, email, text) to enable your spokespersons to reach corporate contacts anywhere and anytime, but don’t assume they will always succeed. Remember Murphy’s Law.
▪ In a crisis, where speed wins, have your spokespersons contact corporate for guidance before interacting with the news media. Some organizations allow spokespersons to talk without getting guidance, and make corporate notifications later – if time doesn’t permit – depending on the issue and position of the spokesperson.
▪ Consider identifying and partnering with local PR firms or communications consultants that can provide immediate assistance to your field spokespersons.
Every day, corporations entrust their field management with important decision-making authority – decisions about equipment, personnel and the like. Delegation is a logical, well accepted practice in business. Don’t be afraid to extend it to media relations.