How Local Government Can Navigate a Disrupted Media Landscape

The two institutions have different needs and roles. But there are ways to build strong relationships that benefit both.
July 6, 2015
Disrupted media
It's important to understand what works in the new media environment. scyther5 / Shutterstock.com
By Bridget Doyle  |  Contributor
Bridget Doyle, a former journalist, is director of community relations for the city of Sterling Heights, Mich.

One of the most important challenges for local governments is to find ways to effectively share and communicate news and information to citizens. This is particularly important when the news is good: Be it quick police response times, well maintained parks, heroic fire rescues or daily civic efficiencies, our public-sector organizations need avenues to inform the public and help create confidence in government.

But -- to the dismay of many local-government leaders -- the reality is that we cannot rely on media to carry the weight of this need. Media does not exist to serve government, nor should it. At its core, the role of the media is to seek truth and report it; it should serve as an unbiased watchdog of government. The role of the journalists is crucial, helping to preserve our nation's foundation of democracy, and transparent governments should respect and uphold this important function.

That is not to say that the media is interested only in scandal and failure. Human-interest pieces are still a priority for news organizations and craved by the consumer. A good story is a good story. But in trying to get our stories out, we in government must understand that the media itself is undergoing wrenching changes. The shrinking and increasingly digital media landscape forces thinly spread reporters to prioritize breaking news first, not our city's positive public-relations pieces. Many reporters are covering entire regions or multiple beats for their publications, broadcast stations or online news sites.

There's also increasing pressure on reporters to find quirky, clickable items that could morph into a viral frenzy. A story about a loveable animal or a laughable criminal that produces thousands of cheap clicks is likely more monetarily valuable to a media outlet than a well reported exposé or feature.

There are ways, however, that media and local governments can work together in ways that benefit both. Here are a few tips for building strong relationships with the media and better utilizing its important resources:

Understand the media's needs. In breaking-news situations, reporters are working on tight, almost-immediate deadlines. Make sure there is a designated media liaison for the city or even one in each department positioned to serve the media's needs quickly. Providing reporters with the information they need quickly will strengthen the relationship and open doors for future positive reporting.

Utilize social media as a story-telling device. Not every story is worth a press release or a lengthy pitch to local media. Tell these good news bits in clear and concise news blurbs on your social-media sites as soon as the information materializes. In conversations with reporters in your area, be sure to point them to your organization's social-media sites as a place to mine story ideas. Give them the freedom to pull photos and other information from your social-media sites as long as they provide appropriate attribution.

Pitch good news -- and then write it yourself. If there is a good-news story that could benefit from some deeper story-telling, start the story for the media. Do the initial legwork, such as finding sources and providing contact information (phone and email), and spell out the meat of the story. If the media doesn't jump at covering your idea, you've already got it in a good place to share via your website, social-media sites or city publications.

Provide photos and video whenever you can. Visuals are king in our current media landscape. If a story doesn't have a photo or video element, statistics show that few will pay attention. As much as possible, tell your stories - and send them to the media -- with a visual or video element.

It's important to remember is that, while the needs of government and the media are different, at the core both have the same interest: serving the people. A mutual understanding and strong working relationship can go a long way toward helping both institutions accomplish that.