Working with the media : An insider’s view

26 August 2015 | Posted In: #126 Spring 2015, Civil Society Issues, Civil Society Skills, Human Service Delivery, Sector Support, | Author: Bruce Wardley

Community groups and agencies often have a story to get into the media. We asked Bruce Wardley from Australian Red Cross to share some of his media experience.

mediaIt is not often a journalist is asked to suggest the best ways to convince a journalist to do a story.

It is probably fortunate then, that with my journalism days largely over that I can now share with you a few ideas about what it is like to be on the other side of the fence, trying to get a story published.

To protect the reputations of the innocent it is probably best not to reveal too much about my career, except perhaps to say that no matter what you want from the media, all news stories must have one essential ingredient and that ingredient is news.

Understanding the needs of the media and establishing a two-way relationship with your local newspaper is a great way to get started. I work for the Australian Red Cross, a not-for-profit organisation with a large volunteer base and we strongly encourage all our members and volunteers to promote their local events.

Little is gained by putting up a wall around a large organisation at a local level if you truly need to communicate at a local level. Of course nothing frightens a corporate media manager more than the prospect of every employee or volunteer broadcasting their own version of current events.

There has to be a compromise, even within small organisations.

It may seem foolhardy but from time to time I believe every local group should be encouraged to seek out, and talk to the editor of their local paper As long as you know what you want to say before you say it, and keep to the point there is little likelihood of a media blunder.

Difficult questions or any questions about money, budgets or government policy should always be directed to your organisation’s authorised media spokesperson; in smaller organisations this might be your Executive Officer or Chairperson. Have your media spokesperson’s name and mobile phone number on hand so if you get a rare, impolite question you can quickly give the journalist someone else to talk to.

Avoid saying “no comment” during an interview. It is always better to politely say you don’t know the answer to a difficult question, and then give them the name and phone number of someone who can answer the question. If you sense the potential for a negative story, notify your organisation’s authorised media spokesperson.

The aim of any encounter with a journalist is to make sure you say what you want to say, in a way that best suits your purpose. Journalists love confrontational stories, but confrontational stories rarely end well for any organisation so my advice is to avoid them.

Community groups in particular have lots of good human interest stories to tell. Find a good storyteller in your organisation and charm the journalist with a story full of emotion and pathos. Newspapers love a story with great pictures, so wherever possible try to stage a photo opportunity or provide something that may be visually appealing.

Prepare the main points of your story well before an interview and memorise them. If you are doing a phone interview, have your key messages on hand, in large writing and on one page so you can refer to them as you go.

Remain calm at all times and take the time to think about your answers. Make sure you are sharing your own information, not information about someone else. Keep your answers to the point but informative, avoid simple ‘yes or no’ answers and stop yourself from launching into a long winded sermon.

If the interview is pre-recorded for radio, or is being dictated to a newspaper reporter don’t be afraid to correct something if you make a mistake. A journalist in most instances will be happy to have the correct information, but if you feel an interview has not gone according to plan contact your media spokesperson immediately.

It is always a good idea to think a little now about media strategy.

The media environment is complex, now more than ever. There are a bewildering number of ways information can be broadcast or published. The first thing to ask is “who do I want to talk to”?

If you only want to communicate to the people in your own neighbourhood then go to your local newspaper, community radio station or a local online news page. There is little point in trying to approach a daily newspaper or a big city TV or radio station if you only want to talk to people in your own neighbourhood.

If you are a community organisation and you want to be heard by government or a larger public audience then make sure your story is of sufficient interest to engage large numbers of people across all age groups and geographic areas.

I am reminded of something that was said to me when I first started in commercial television. The Chairman of the Board said to me quite seriously “TV news is all about filling the space between ads.” I suspect this is still true and equally applies to newspapers, commercial radio and the web. You must always remember that the principal aim of news is to attract an audience.

Fortunately we have a national broadcaster to cover news that may not be so appealing to others, but even the ABC will want a story that attracts an audience rather than turn people away.

Share your stories and media contacts with other people in your organisation. Media outlets have good archives so make sure your corporate or organisational memory is up to theirs.

arcmediaSelf-publishing is also an alternative with a growing audience for personal blogs.

Don’t forget to post messages and photos on Facebook, Instagram or Linked In, or send out regular Tweets!

Finally I’d like to give you an example of a simple media campaign that began very simply for Red Cross but ended up attracting an audience of over one million readers.

Each year Red Cross Shops appeal for donations of warm clothing. We call this our ‘winter woollies’ campaign. Not only did we send out a media release this year we attached some eye catching photos which attracted the eye of newspaper editors right around the country. The photos were used repeatedly as a background graphic which added to the story’s appeal.

Good luck with your own local media campaign. Tomorrow I and hundreds of others will be out there competing with you and your organisation for space in a newspaper or a chance mention on radio or TV.

I was told by an editor once that all news is local; good local news starts with you.

Bruce Wardley is a Media Adviser to Australian Red Cross.