COLUMN: Barb Gustafson — May 14, 2014

Barb Gustafson
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City manager Jim Toye suggested, wisely, that city councillors and senior managers take some media training. The idea was not well received by city council: some council members think they already know it all; some think training is useless, because the media only run negative news anyway. The recommendation was denied at council on Monday.

It’s too bad, because it’s clear from the comments around the discussion that council could benefit from some training in this area, and with the many new managers at city hall, they likely would benefit, too.

Dealing with the media is both easy and difficult, and I’ve seen it from both sides, as a journalist for many years and as a politician for a short stint. Once established, a good relationship with the media can be relatively easy to maintain, but like all relationships, it takes some work. And, like other relationships, it won’t always be smooth. The key is respect and understanding on both sides.

So as my small contribution toward saving the taxpayers some money, and helping city council at the same time, I offer my version of a media training course. As homework for city council members, I recommend:

1. Try to see the world from the other person’s viewpoint. As a politician, you need to understand that reporters and editors have deadlines to meet and stories to write. They need a quote now, not two days from now. You can have an hour or two, sometimes, to think about your answer or to check on a fact, but generally you need to speak now or hold your peace with the media. And, you don’t get to read the story before it runs; this is a news story, not a paid advertisement. That’s why the public believes it far more than they would believe what’s in an ad. In return for helping a reporter get the story in and on time, you get your message out to the people. It may not be exactly as you would have wanted it, but it should be clear and generally accurate.

On the other side, reporters need to have a bit of understanding for politicians. These are just regular folks who have agreed to serve the community. A bit of friendly editing, to make the quote read better and to remove the “umms” and “ahs” is not going to compromise your integrity. Don’t deliberately make someone look bad, just because you can.

2. Tell the truth. We expect politicians to play games with the facts, but for your own good, you shouldn’t lie. If you can’t say something, say why, and if it’s a good reason such as confidentiality of personnel records or pending legal action, your lack of comment will be understood. What you should not do is try to fool the media. Reporters are educated, smart and have excellent crap-detecting skills. They will sense a lie, and go after the truth twice as hard as before. When they do, you will lose support for yourself and your ideas because the public hates to be told one thing and then find out the truth later. If you don’t tell the truth, you will likely get caught in the lie and pay heavily for it, since the cover up will be remembered long after the initial problem is gone. There’s a long line of ex-politicians to prove this point.

3. Take some time to talk when you’re not in a rush and the reporter is not on deadline. Call up the editor, or the reporter you regularly see at meetings or news conferences. Have a chat. Even offer to buy coffee. Some reporters are so ethical they refuse to take even a free coffee, but the offer is always nice. Have an “off the record” chat about your views on things. Drop some hints about what’s in the works. Set the stage for future stories.

4. But always remember that nothing is truly off the record. Sometimes, people become too comfortable with the media. They talk too freely, forgetting that the reporter’s job is to gather information. You can’t take back what you have said; at best, you can only delay its publication. So, be friendly, but don’t forget who you’re talking to and the role that person must play.

5. It may seem the opposite to what has just been said, but you also need to learn to trust. If you are a politician, it means you must work with the media -- like it or not -- and you have to have some level of trust. Despite all the social media and electronic means to reach the people, the mass media outlets of newspaper, radio and television still carries a lot of weight in shaping opinions. You will need their help, sooner or later, and you will be better able to ask for a favour if you’ve built a relationship in the past. At the same time, both politicians and reporters need to remember that you are not friends. People may act friendly, but let’s be clear: each side is using the other. It’s a symbiotic relationship, not a friendship.

The good news for our city council, and politicians in other smaller centres, is that the news media is not that difficult to deal with; the managers, editors, and reporters are part of the community. They’re looking for interesting stories, not sensational stories. (And face it, city council doings are generally not that sensational, unless you’re in Toronto.) There’s plenty of good news reported along with the negative, because the news is a reflection of our community, which is both good and bad.

Be willing to face up to the bad news, and you will get the good news out, too. And as the public, we can then be served by both our news media and our city council.

 

Barb Gustafson is a lifelong Prince Albert resident and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email: gustafsonba@gmail.com

Organizations: Prince Albert

Geographic location: Toronto

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