I have a confession to make.
I work in espionage…
…and I’m a double-agent.
I would like to say you can find me disappearing into the twilight wearing a stylish trench coat, heels clicking down the sidewalk as I chase my leads, peering out from under the brim of a smart hat to survey the scene. But, that would be incredibly impractical for Phoenix. Especially during the summer months.
Nope. I actually don’t own a stylish trench coat. I have run in heels and it’s not a pleasant experience. The only hats I own are baseball caps and a few beanies for snowboarding or skiing. Yet, even with that plain persona of mine, people still willingly share information with me and I do what I can to pass it on to the other side.
I’m on a big case right now. In fact, it could be a game-changer. I hope it is. So do a lot of other folks. However, this case was a bit too much for me… so I had to call in someone who could help sniff out where to go. I know Bloodhounds are usually used in a situation of this nature. But, I needed a Bulldog.
Winston Churchill said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
The case: a quiet feud building among the broadcast media and public information officers (PIO’s).
The criticism: it appears there is a major disconnect between how each side communicates and how each side works.
The good news: war has not broken out yet. In fact, with a few diplomatic discussion points, we may be able to reach a victory for both parties. And I will use Winston’s wisdom to get us there.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
Read that again. I remember a few times as a reporter, when I dashed to a story (I was probably running in heels, too, come to think of it) and I really had no idea what the story was. I’m deeply ashamed to admit that. It happens. Not just to me. (Don’t worry, reporter friends… I won’t out you.) But, there are times when we charge ahead, assigned to tell someone’s story… and we have no idea. what this. is. all. about.
Winston’s right. It takes courage to sit down and listen. Or, to put it in reporter terms: we’re all so scared of not making our deadline, we may fear sitting down to do some preliminary research because time is precious and usually in short supply. Or, maybe we feel so confident in our skills, we assume we can figure it out when we get there. Take heart, and take time. Knowing the basic foundation of a story will save you not only time in the field, but also allow you to save face among experts who are on scene. I’m talking about the PIO’s. A few of them leaked this precious information to me. They’re getting irked by reporters showing up unprepared. They want to -believe it or not- help you do your job better. So, do ’em a favor: learn some basic material before you show up and speak, pretending you know… when you really have no idea. Which leads me to the other area where to have courage: if you really don’t know, speak up. I’ll give you this info as a former insider. Repeat after me. Or type it in your BlackBerry notes: “I appreciate your time to meet me. I have to be honest: I have no clue what this is all about. Can we talk off-camera before we start the actual interview?” Be courageous. Be honest.
That said, PIO’s, listen up. Reporters are a dying breed. In this race to get information out to the public, a new figure is emerging: the multi-media journalist (MMJ). You can ID them by 1) they’re alone 2) their arsenal. Camera? Check. Tripod? Maybe – if it wasn’t the heavy one that no one wants to use and usually gets left in the car. Nice suit? Perhaps… depends on if they’re more reporter-turned-mmj or photojournalist-turned-mmj. The latter of which will always be identifiable by comfortable footwear, ample ease in setting up the gear and getting the white-balance to work properly.
PIO’s: the MMJ is a super-hero. Someone upon which the honor of great responsibility has been bestowed. Handle this hero with care. Theirs is a large burden: find the story, make the contacts, drive to the scene, find interviewees and set up equipment. Conduct interview. Log tape. Write story. Write blog. Update Facebook. Update twitter. Send cell phone pictures back to the base (aka: station) with brief updates that are meant to entice the web users to watch the broadcast. Tweet more. GO LIVE! Drive back to the station. Update story with fresh content for the next newscast. And… done! *Whew* I got tired just writing that. I hope you gained some empathy from reading it. So does the MMJ.
PIO’s, I know you want to help this fascinating news machine. Here’s how (straight from my close connections, in fact, this is a direct quote from an email): “When it comes to Public Information Officers, being AVAILABLE is key. Once a newsroom knows you’re dependable, flexible, and willing to help out in a crunch… the relationship is solid. Your phone will be ringing off the hook because you’ll be the first one someone thinks of for great comment. That, of course, means you’ll want to take an aggressive approach: send TIMELY story ideas, regular updates, even reminders to as many email addresses as possible. As they say in the news biz, the newsroom never sleeps… so chances are, you’ll catch the attention of someone…” To which I would add, have things set as best as possible for your MMJ so upon her arrival to the scene, you both get the message of the story communicated correctly, efficiently, and effectively.
“Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.”
Getting through these challenges together will win the race to get timely and important information out to the public. Here are just a few short items of note, to supplement the information above. Warning: the eloquence is gone. The gloves are off. This double-agent is not necessarily tired from hearing it from both sides, but – enough is enough.
“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”
Thanks, Mr. Churchill. Let’s just jump right in, shall we?
-You know that saying, “Less is More” – news flash: less is not more. Less sucks. Television news needs pictures to go with the story. PIO’s keep this in mind: plan for some compelling images, and you will have just made a fast friend out of the press members who cover your event. In addition, more information can be used in other mediums, like a station’s website for a side-bar story. More. Give them more. The news beast is a hungry one. Feed it. 🙂
-Another one of my favorites: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Reporters: if you don’t have a pertinent question, don’t ask a stupid one. Here’s another favorite saying of mine: “Google it.” Enough said.
-Everyone: remember, this is not a glamorous business. There may be times you have to cover a plane crash, a forest fire, a murder out in the rain standing on an unpaved road that is now turning into mud caking onto the Michael Kors wedges you got on sale at Nordstrom Rack. (Yes, I would know.) Reporters: keep a good change of clothes at work. Shoes, boots, a jacket. You never know where the day will take you. Besides, isn’t that one of the reasons you got into this business in the first place? On the flip side: PIO’s. You can help by alerting the press that there may be certain requirements on certain scenes. For example: one day, I was heading out to cover a forest fire. I had heels on. My boots were in the news car. (Good thing I thought that far ahead, at least. I just didn’t think to put them on. I’m tough. I can hike in heels.) A PIO who was heading up the media walked over. Looked at my shoes. “You know, I can take you into some really great areas on this fire, you could get some great shots!! But, I can’t take you in those.” He winked – knowing he just baited a sucker for a good b-roll opportunity.
I changed my shoes. I love good fire video… and I’m a sucker for a wink.