What I’ve Learned As A Spokesperson: John Barnett
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in an ongoing series of readers sharing what they’ve learned as media spokespersons. Click here to learn how to submit your own piece. Today’s post comes from John Barnett, a senior communications analyst for Vox Optima.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve only been a spokesperson a few times. The majority of my career has been prepping the spokespeople and media reps to do their jobs well. I’m the wizard behind the curtain.
But in my [mumble-cough-mumble] years of working with media and spokespeople, I can say 90 percent of my media encounters were positive, effective and balanced. But the real secret to helping your spokesperson work effectively with reporters isn’t magic, just simplicity.
Deliver what you promise.
Here’s what I mean: A few years back (names and places are changed to protect the … well, me) my media team was involved with a large project of intense local, national and international media interest. Smartly so, headquarters created media ground rules supporting transparency, organizational messaging, interviewing opportunities and reasonably unhindered media access. So all’s right with the Universe, right?
Uh, no. Not even close.
Enter our local bosses packing deep-seated distrust of the media and directing entirely different media ground rules. We’ll call them anti-media ground rules.
Watching our spokesperson in the first reporter meeting being forced to tell the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, et al, we were reneging on the ground rules was painful. And a first-year rookie could expect what came next. We got our butts handed to us during the first wave of reporting. And our local leadership got animated phone calls and personal visits from their bosses as reminders of what rules to follow.
Safe to say a new direction was implemented rather quickly, followed by an improved reporting tone and style as we returned to the original ground rules. We just had to deliver. And deliver we did.
Based on that experience (and others), here are six things you should remember when working with the media:
1. Provide Access as Promised. Few instances justify going back on your word.
2. Offer Relevant Subject Matter Experts/Spokespeople: They should be lined up and ready to go, on time as promised. That means prepping with media training, providing messaging and background notes, practicing with mock interviews, all without excuses for a late, ill-prepared spokesperson.
3. Anticipate Media Needs. Prepare digital/hard copy press kits, hold thorough press briefings, and set up reliable communications, connectivity and other support facilities if it’s a long-term event.
4. Be Flexible. Always build in scheduling cushion for the unknown, running long, etc. That gives the media enough time to “get it right.”
5. Be Respectful. Remember smaller outlets and new media reporters deserve a fair shake like “the big guys.” Two-way respect is always appreciated, and it doesn’t make you a doormat.
6. Be Transparent. “No comment” is not in a spokesperson’s vocabulary. Even “I don’t know, but will get the answer” is better; just make sure you follow-up.
With an effective team anticipating needs and backing up the public face, your expectation of media reporting should be relatively accurate and fair. But as I experienced, going into a media situation from the adversarial position will never work. As Brad quoted in a previous post, “never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
It just makes for a bigger story you don’t want.
John Barnett, a senior communications analyst for the national telework public relations company, Vox Optima, has more than 27 years of expertise in public relations consulting, media relations and training, and social media management. John can be reached on Twitter, LinkedIn and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the five previous entries in this series by John Fitzpatrick, Philip Connolly, Starr Million Baker, Justin Cole, and Julia Stewart. Or better yet, contribute your own piece! Submission rules here.
I’ve made similar mistakes John – in not forcing/requiring more media training for clients. Tone, style, attitude – it matters, and for on camera interviews, they speak loud and clear. In being helpful to the media, you have to remember that — more often than not — they are doing you a favor. So yes, be flexible, help them, give them people who can provide usable, qualified expertise. Good advice, FWIW.
Absolutely Davina. And it’s also important to make sure all the decision makers are onboard and aligned. Giving leaders all the media training in the world won’t help if they aren’t invested in supporting the organization’s media relations goals and objectives.
My thanks for your insights and opinion.
John and Davina,
Thank you for your comments. I appreciate you both being willing to share your experiences with readers on this blog!
Great stuff. Thanks, John.
Excellent advice for teachers too.
Yay, John! Smart, smart list and one obviously learned from experience. Those are always painful when we go through them, but SOOOO important when we learn from them – as you have.
Great to see you here! One of my favorite blogs hosting one of my favorite tweeps!
Thanks for your nice words about John’s piece (and my blog)! Am thrilled you’re part of this community.
Would like to echo Brad’s thanks to John D, Jacqueline and Erica (my favorite North Carolina tweep!) for their kudos and kind words. These kinds of case studies invariably catch up to you and are painful. The best defense is getting the entire organization’s leadership in lock-step to the media relations goals … lest you run into media and coverage problems.