Politics

The Wrong Message

Governments shouldn't consider it inevitable that they will get bad press.
by | December 2007
 

Let's face it: Governments have a public-relations problem. Often, it's more than just a problem; in crisis situations, they can be clueless about what they are doing. Even when public officials rise to the occasion by keeping the public informed about an emergency such as the recent wildfires in Southern California, they tend to squander their credibility on foolish misadventures such as the recent FEMA press conference featuring in-house shills pretending to be reporters.

When it comes to day-to-day operations, nothing quite so dramatic is involved: Most government officials and agencies simply struggle to get out their own good news to a skeptical press and public. If you ask them about this, you generally get a tried-and-true response--it's the media's fault. Because reporters are looking for "conflict" and "tension," they argue, attracting coverage of basic government services or policy changes can be a struggle. Beth Chapman, Alabama's secretary of state, says, "I called the AP reporter and said, 'What do I have to do, go to prison or get shot to get coverage?'"

But if it's true that the media fixate on scandal, how should government officials respond?

All too often, they respond the wrong way. Being defensive and shying away from reporters will not lead to better coverage. By worrying that they will inevitably be portrayed in an unflattering light, especially on blogs, says Jill Chamberlin, communications director for Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, public officials fail to get out their own success stories. "The most fundamental problem government has is when they either fail to have competent communications people on staff," she says, "or fail to include them in the policy process."

It's not that all the ideas of communications staff consultants are great ones. Jackie Nytes, a city-county councilwoman in Indianapolis, argues that the talking points consultants drill into the heads of elected officials can get them stuck on automatic replay, unable to alter their messages as circumstances warrant.

But because the public attitude toward policies is a fundamental measure of success in government, someone on staff needs to be thinking from the start about how best to keep the public informed. It's important to think about how an idea will play outside the room in which it was adopted. Yes, the press is sometimes too wedded to conflict; but those inside government often concern themselves too much with consensus and internal standards.

Press releases or interview talking points crafted by committee rarely come across as compelling to reporters or anyone else. The work governments do is important and affects people's lives and property, which means that even non-glamorous subjects such as consumptive use permits or inadequate sewers can make for interesting stories. "If you can tell a story," Chamberlin says, "it doesn't matter how modest the story is, it's going to have some impact."

Most people in government don't seem to think in terms of stories--or media strategy in general. There are certainly exceptions, but comparatively few public officials, especially those in appointive or career positions, think enough about media relations basics such as how to frame a story or how to find the right medium with which to target the right audience. "It's not the media's job to tell our story," says Larisa Benson, a performance management expert with Washington State. "It's government's job to tell government's story and to give the media the information they need."

What kind of information? Not just data. Reporters may like stories about conflict, but they also like to be furnished with anecdotes or people who can illustrate a program's impact. Find them a resident who will be positively affected by a new highway or increased library spending and the result will nearly always be positive coverage. The reporters will find their own NIMBY opposition spokesmen to supply the requisite quotes that provide the conflict (or, as we in the media call it, balance). But the government's example will, most likely, provide the story's lead. Try it--you'll see.

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