POLITICAL ACUMEN TOOLKIT:
Politics are performed in the public domain and as a result, are loved by the media. Media, whether it be formal news institutions, online reporters/bloggers, or the commentary of online social networks, act as a check and balance for elected officials by “keeping them honest.” This can either be a good or bad thing depending on a CAO’s political acumen and ability to work with media representatives. This section offers advice on:
Managing Media Relationships
An administration’s relationship with local media is one of the most important relationships that can be cultivated by a CAO. Positive relationships with reporters and news outlets assist municipalities in three ways:
- It ensures that when there is negative news coverage, the municipality’s input is given positive consideration in the report.
- It also allows Administration to use the media to the community’s advantage when there is a need to get information out to residents.
- It supports the foundational planning for emergency preparedness where media will be used as a conduit to stakeholders in a crisis situation.
For these reasons, the communications strategy for your municipality should include media coverage as a key tactic. In addition to required public notices, media outlets should be used to provide exposure to important initiatives or changes in the community, especially if they will have a significant impact on the public. Building rapport with these organizations will allow you to get editorial content to speak to key issues facing your municipality at no cost. If this relationship is not there, your municipality may be forced to rely on advertising content, which is less likely to receive attention.
Media should always be treated with respect. Doing so increases the probability that they will reciprocate and treat Administration and Council with deference. Get on the bad side of a reporter, and it is more likely for your municipality to be reflected negatively in any news coverage. As a sign of good faith, it can also be a good strategy to reach out to reporters before they contact you occasionally. This shows that you are genuine and willing to share information, when appropriate.
Talking to the Media
Every municipality should have a communications policy in place that outlines who is authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the municipality. Most often, this includes Council, the CAO, and in larger municipalities, a Director of Communications. In some communities, Council may prefer the CAO to speak on behalf of the municipality. However, as a general rule, the head of Council should be doing the majority of the talking. As most CAOs will tell you, it is not usually a good thing if the CAO is ending up in the paper more than the Mayor. As Siegel notes, CAOs are leaders in the shadows: “things that work well are invisible” and “media take an interest only when things go wrong” (2015, p.3). While CAOs should be familiar with the media, representing the municipality is better left to elected representatives.
All staff members should be familiar with these media protocols and understand what their boundaries are. Always remember that nothing is “off the record.” Any information you provide formally or informally to a journalist becomes part of their arsenal of potential editorial content. If you have a communications team, use them for support in developing messaging that can be used with the media and preparing for interviews.
It is especially important to designate a specific media spokesperson during crisis situations to ensure consistent messaging. It can also be helpful to schedule media briefing times. This allows staff to stay focused on what needs to be done to support the emergency instead of fielding media requests. If there is an emergent situation, the spokesperson can always call the media together.
If your municipality frequently talks to the media it might be a good to offer media training to those authorized to speak for the municipality. There are many consultants out there offering various types of media training in anything from developing messages for media through to full on-camera and radio training. Prices can also vary from a couple thousand to tens of thousands. Do a bit of research and pick what is best-suited to the needs of your municipality. When seeking out qualified media trainers look to identify a trainer who will customize training to meet the needs of your organization and not offer a “cookie cutter” training session. Training should include the opportunity for on-camera mock interviews with critiques for each individual.
- Siegel, D. Leaders in the Shadows: The Leadership Qualities of Municipal Chief Administrative Officers.
Before the Interview
• Interviews are opportunities
Media interviews are opportunities to present your municipality’s key messages to the public. Whenever possible, know who the interviewer is and what they want to discuss. Find out how long the final piece is likely to be. For television and radio, ask if it will be a live interview or prerecorded and if it will be a phone or in-studio interview. This will help guide you on how to plan your responses. If there is time, research the audience of the publication or station they work for, and prepare by reviewing key messages and anticipating questions in advance.
• Know your audience
When developing key messages, consider the point of view of the audience. Do they have any concerns you need to address? When we are passionate about a topic, we believe everyone else shares our viewpoint, but this is often not the case. Remember to use the interview as an opportunity to educate your audience on the position your municipality is taking and why you are taking that position.
• Deadlines and Requesting Questions in Advance
Reporters often work to tight deadlines. Because of this, you should ask what their deadline is first. Once you know their timeline, it is reasonable to ask for some time to gather all the facts. While not always possible, it can be helpful to try to find out the angle or subject matter of the story prior to responding. One strategy that is often successful is to ask the journalist to send you the question(s), so you can get back to them when you have more time in your schedule to respond. However, when you ask for more time, it is imperative that you follow up within the agreed upon timeline as the story will run with or without your input.
• Preparing Key Messages
Prepare up to three key messages you want to share with the media. Practice these messages and make sure they are clear and concise; do not leave room for interpretation. Key messages should be developed with your audience in mind. For example, if you are talking about a municipal tax issue that is impacting residents, put yourself in their shoes as you select keywords. A message map can act as a guide and help you focus your messages. A template has been included as a downloadable resource in this section.
During the Interview
• Start of the Interview
Introduce yourself, be polite, smile and shake hands. If your interview is being taped, make sure you ask the reporter if you can say and spell your full name and position. This will help ensure the agency does not make any errors when they put your interview on the air.
• Follow the ABC Method
Acknowledge the question.
Bridge using phrases like: “Thank you for that question, but what matters most right now is…,” “It would be more correct to say…,” “While that may be true, it is more important to …,” etc.
Content (deliver your key messages).
• Dead Air
When talking to journalists, always remember that you do not need to fill dead air. They will leave pauses in the conversation to get you to speak more on the topic. Remember to stick to your key messages. The reporter will move to the next question when it is clear you have nothing further to say.
Similarly, journalists will often ask if there is anything else you would like to add at the end of the interview. Try not to get caught by this and provide unnecessary information. Instead, use this question to reiterate your two to three main points and end the interview on a positive note.
• Leading Questions
Reporters will often ask “leading questions.” These might be questions starting with “What if …,” “How come…,” “Suppose this…,” etc. Do not dignify anything you cannot confirm and do not repeat the negative or leading phrase when you answer the question. If you say it, the piece may be edited to seem as though you agreed with the statement.
• “No Comment” is Never a Comment to Make
“No comment” is never a good response. Saying this implies that the question is valid, but you do not want to answer it. The public can also perceive this as guilt or avoidance of an issue. Instead, say why you are unable to respond (e.g. confidentiality, privacy, still assessing the situation, etc.). If possible, provide a timeline for when the information might be available.
• To Respond or not to… That is the Question
Finally, as the CAO, you need to evaluate when to respond to the media and when it is best not to. When a municipality comments on a story, the story gains more authority. Because of this, it is sometimes better not to say anything and let the story fade away. However, if it could appear like the municipality is avoiding a contentious issue by not responding, this may not be the best strategy. Assessing this requires political acumen and a thorough evaluation of all the implications.
• Nothing is Ever “Off the Record”
Anything you tell the media is part of the public domain. Asking them to keep something “off the record” does not change this, and they can use any information you provide at any point.
A brief Media Interview Checklist has been included as a downloadable resource to this section to help you keep these pointers in mind.
“There is no such thing as a bad question – only bad answers”
After the Interview
After the interview has finished, do not continue talking about the issue. You never know when a microphone may still be on capturing your post-interview comments. Instead, thank the reporter and ask them if they have everything they need.
If they have requested follow up information, give them your business card or that of your communications team, and invite them to email any follow-up questions. Ask them when the piece is planning to air or be published. If it is taped, ask them if they can send you the clip when finished for your retention or a link to where it will be posted.
Be polite and cordial throughout. Journalists have a job to do – always remember they are a conduit to help you deliver important information to your stakeholders who are also your court of public opinion.
- Administration & Council
- Residents & Ratepayers
- Provincial & Federal