The recent interview on the Radio 702 with John Robbie and Jimmy Many of the GCIS and his words that the media has ‘tendencies’ and the reported breakdown of relationships between the SA National Editors Forum and Manyi got me thinking.
Tendencies? View points? What drives a journalist? Let’s view it from another angle.
Why engage in Media Relations? And, what are some of the rules that need to be understood?
Media inquiries, whether crisis-related or routine, are an outstanding opportunity for companies to manage the most important asset they have — their corporate reputation. Getting stories out there and addressing views about your organisation is important.
However media relations need to be seen in a context. That context involves understanding the rules of the game and of engagement.
I always like start with the end purpose in mind (a-la Covey). What is the end purpose in Media Relations?
Is it not to convey messages to targeted audiences, for example – voters – messages, whose purpose is to advance your organisation’s goals, raise its profile, and uphold its reputation?
This means that journalists becomes a means to an end and are conduits or tools. This means that the focus of Media relations is about creating an on-going dialogue between a news outlet and your spokespeople in an effort to have you or your company discussed in a positive light, in public, through a publication or broadcast.
In order to this you need to focus on creating relationships with media people. But before you can create a relationship you need to understand the rules of the game.
You need to know the rules of the game, because if you do not you may be caught out by not understanding the law, customs, conventions and standard operating procedures relating to the media. It means that you need to know how they operate and approach their job.
That knowledge in turn will shape your attitude towards journalists and editors. For instance if you distrust and dislike journalists, it will generally show and affect your dealings with the media.
I think that the media in general sees themselves as a ‘watchdog’ against big business and institutions. For example many major institutions have systems for communicating information. The entire advertising industry exists for the sole purpose of communicating good news and propaganda about products, services, companies, organisations and even organisations. You never see a press advertisement or a TV commercial telling the public what is wrong with a product or what a company failed to do. Why?
In an environment where the public is bombarded with information from advertising, public relations sources, organisation information units, ‘spin doctors’ in industry and professional associations, lobbyists and so on, journalists and editors believe that they must provide a balance by consciously and aggressively searching for the bad news. They see themselves as devil advocates, standing guard for right and truth.
If you understand that you will understand how they view their jobs, and you can then find ways to make their job easy, build relationships with them and find ways to improve communication with them. (Communication is the sharing of meaning).
For example – by becoming a trusted resource you put money in the reputation bank for the future. Becoming a trusted resource is about being available and providing relevant information and keeping them in the loop, amongst many other things.
Too often I see people focusing on how wrong the media is, blah, blah.This is a dangerous position because you stop looking at what you can do to enhance the sharing of meaning.
Perhaps by focusing on the end purpose, there will be better clarity. In one organisation the management team was of the opinion that it was not their job to make it easy for the Media to report on them. Through work shopping and working with them I was able to get them to realise that the principles of negotiation also applies to media relations. That the focus should be on win-win, and not win-lose!
Once they had the knowledge and understanding it was easier to persuade them to see the use of the media as an opportunity and not a bind.
Obviously, there are many more dynamics and rules of engagement to consider, but perhaps it does start with the end purpose in mind.
However there is more to a media policy than just an instruction that tells staff who will speak or is allowed to speak to the media. A Media Policy can be a document that sets the tone for communication with the Media and other stakeholders.
The advent of the Internet and Social Media have changed the traditional rules and landscape of media relations. Today an employee or a stakeholder can have their own presence on Facebook, have their own blog, send pictures from their phones directly to websites on the Internet, making it more difficult to control messages.
Some companies profess to believe in engagement with stakeholders, yet do not allow their staff to access social networking sites, whilst others embrace the new technologies. Some cite bandwidth issues as their biggest constraint, yet time and time again it has been shown that unless transparency is understood, a company will not easily open up to these new tools.
This makes the writing of a media policy a vital exercise to steer clear of potential reputation risk. This makes the writing of this policy no longer the responsibility of the PR department, but that of the Risk Committee.
Writing a best practice media policy will therefore need discussions with subject matter and 3rd party experts, dialogue with stakeholders, an understanding of the issues in a company as well as knowledge of the latest laws, rules, regulations, needs and expectations of stakeholders.
Only when these issues have been discussed and researched, can a policy be written. I also believe that it is vital for any business not just to design and write a best practice media policy, but that this policy should be accompanied by a guideline that contains hints to deal with not only the media but also communication with other stakeholders.
To write a media policy you will need specialised help. You can either work with your PR Company or enlist the services of an external services provider such as a specialised writer and/or a Social Media company to assist you in this regard.
Here is a part example of a policy and a short checklist to guide you in this process (Please note that this is not a complete list).
Example of a Media Policy
The objective of the XYZ Company’s Corporate Communications policy and procedure is to ensure that the information contained in all communication with stakeholders is consistent, accurate, fair and timely.
(This statement is not as simple as it looks. Issues of transparency needs to be carefully researched, especially legal issues, issues of voluntary, mandatory and involuntary disclosure and whether the organisation wants to be transparent, i.e intent)
To ensure this, it is the policy of the XYZ Company that:
The Company will comply with all laws and regulations regarding public disclosure of material events, financial results and operations;
- The Company is committed to non-selective, fair disclosure of information about The Company without advantage or disadvantage to any participant in the financial market place;
- The Company will voluntarily disclose any non-material information, which is not the subject of a confidentiality agreement and determined by senior management to be in the interest of stakeholders, shareholders, the investment community and the public;
- All disclosures to the media will be communicated by an authorised Media Relations Officer or designate;
- All disclosures to the financial community, including investment analysts, brokers and current or potential investors will be communicated by the CEO, CFO, and Investor Relations or their designate(s);
- All the Company media releases, information prepared for the financial community, and all other Company related information for public disclosure must follow the procedures for review and approval outlined herein;
- The External Communications Policy applies to all the Company employees and, with respect to their reference to the Company, all subsidiaries and associates;
- Management will be responsible for ensuring that this policy and related procedures are communicated and followed consistently in their operations;
- Non-compliance with this policy may damage the Company’s reputation and/or cause the Company and/or its shareholders to be prejudiced and to suffer damages and/or losses;
- As with all of The Company’s policies any non-compliance will be treated as serious and will result in disciplinary action and could give rise to civil and/or criminal liability on the part of the employee. It is the responsibility of all employees to familiarise themselves with this policy.
The Public Relations Manager can be contacted should an employee wish to seek clarity or assistance with respect to any aspect of this policy.
Example of a Checklist: Due thought needs to be given to the clarification of procedures for preparation, review and approval of external communication materials:
- Media Relations
- Industry Analyst Relations
- Financial Analyst Relations
- Stakeholder Relations
- Conference/Seminar/Roundtable/Speaking Opportunities/White Papers/Opinion Pieces
- Corporate Identity
- Email Signatures
- Crisis Communications
- Acquisitions, Partnerships, Subsidiaries and associates
- Naming conventions
- Customer/External Newsletters
- Internal Newsletter
- Website and Intranet issues
- Blogging, Facebook usage, Wikis and other Social Media
- IT related issues.
As you can see, due thought has to go into the writing of this policy. Who needs to be consulted and vet certain information? Example – Internal newsletter may have content and remuneration information that has to be cleared by the Human Resources Director.
From a reputation risk perspective, you want clear policies, implementation guidelines & tips for all of these areas.
Writing the policy is one thing. Once you have written it, it needs to be authorised by the Board, and other parties such as the Company’s Legal and PR representatives. Getting the policy scrutinised by external 3rd party experts is advisable.
Once the policy is approved, it is useless to just distribute it and get it to be filed in the company’s policy manual. It is also not sufficient to just communicate the contents via a memorandum or e-mail to managers and staff.
I believe that it is vital that specific training is conducted throughout the organisation, so that staff can understand the dangers and peril of irresponsible communication and the impact it can have on the reputation of the institution. Training managers in Media Relations awareness is not the same as Media Spokesperson training and the two should not be confused.
Media awareness training differs from practical spokesperson coaching. Let me explain. Companies traditionally appoint two to three spokespersons. The spokespeople (who are carefully chosen), need to receive hands on practical training in front of cameras, microphones and live audiences. This type of training is expensive and time intensive and is normally conducted in a studio. Some trainers put spokespersons on the spot and then proceed to show them their weaknesses. This often breaks down people self-confidence levels and should be avoided (You cannot build on sand). Spokesperson training should be positive and uplifting and conducted in simulated environments.
However I believe that general management also need “contextual” training – training that will add to their understanding but that can be added on in a studio later. It is this training that is needed to ensure adherence and compliance with the Media policy.
Managers need to understand the media stakeholder, how they operate and how to conduct themselves in a media interview situation. This is typically the type of training I conduct in my Media Survival Skills workshop.
Often senior management are the people who have to formulate the messages that spokespersons need to convey or decide on an approach in dealing with the media. They therefore need to understand the media stakeholder, so that these messages and chance interactions with the media will be positive and uplifting.
My favourite saying is that media relations need to be approached with strategic intent and if you do not know the rules of the game, how can you play it.
I believe that my recommended two-tier approach to writing a Media policy and implementation is the best for building sound media relations and minimise that type of reputation risk in the organisation.