A chat with a local CAO (chief administrative officer) led me to write this post on municipal staff and what they can do when faced with unwelcome media calls. He was lamenting about the jam that staff members can find themselves in when certain things take a bad turn publicly, and the media, sensing a rift, call up looking for speculation or a quote.
“Happens all the time,” said my friend. “Reporters bypass the media person – if there is one – and go straight to the head of (pick one) engineering, public works, or planning. Or to *their* admin people. These folks often feel trapped, especially if the media sense there is a difference of opinion between staff members and municipal council.”
What to do? Here are a couple of tips:
For municipal staff :
- Whoever picks up the phone at the municipal office is automatically a spokesperson, even if all they can say is “we are aware of the issue.” In fact, “we are aware of the issue” is a great start. Do remember this. If a reporter asks for your name, give it, and stress that you are not a spokesperson but will get someone to call back ASAP. Then make sure you do it.
- If pressed, don’t get defensive. Be polite, even if your pulse rate is soaring. Yes, it’s not your job to handle the call, but if there are three people in the township office (or 20) and the other two (or 19) are all out at a conference, you become The Person. Media move fast, and I’ll argue that any response is better than nothing. Nothing invariably shows up as “township not available for comment.”
- Which brings us to the “What if” calls. These are calls for speculation. Sneaky little devils, those. As I ponder this and think of people holding nice municipal jobs that they’d very much like to keep, I remember the old (and new) tricks that reporters love to use that can leave you opening the paper the next day and wanting to die because of an innocent slip of the tongue. “What if…” is one of those tricks.
- Never utter the kiss- of- death phrase “no comment.” People sometimes think this makes them look smart, and important. Nothing could be further from the truth. How it usually plays out on camera or in print is that you or your office have something to hide. This applies to management too.
- Text or call your manager immediately and tell him or her about the call. If media calls are coming to you first, ask for a briefing so that you won’t be caught flat-footed again.
- Ask your boss for a statement you can use when you answer the phone, but here’s a caveat: put it into your own words or it will sound exactly like what it is: a rote statement.
- It’s okay to ask the reporter more about what they want to know. In fact, I advise it. It shows the reporter you are taking the call seriously, and want to help. When I acted as a media relations staff person for the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, or for Du Pont Canada, I’d always cloak this by saying “I really want to make sure you get the right answer, so if you can just give me a general sense of what you want to ask, I’ll be better able to get Mr. Xxxx to call you back with correct information.” It often works. You’ll get a hint of what they are after and be able to prepare your manager better when he returns the call.
- If you are the manager, call the staff together (if possible) and brief them on the issue. Otherwise, call them. Don’t email them. A quick look at the present Senate debacle tells you why this is not advisable. Emails can go astray.
- Tell them what you’d like them to say and what you’d like them to gracefully avoid. They’re sure to be asked about it. They are, after all, ambassadors for the municipality, and can get nailed with questions in the grocery store checkout line, at their service club, or while clutching a Timmie’s at Johnnie’s hockey practice. Hopefully you’ll have done this before the first call comes in, but one call should alert you to take action, because more are coming.
- If staff members are not in accord with a position taken by elected councillors, and the media gets wind of this, you will really need to be on your toes. You’ll be asked to speculate. (see #3 above) Hint: These questions usually start with the words, “what if…”, or “suppose”. Don’t go or the bait. Say you can’t talk, but say it nicely. To get more help with this, you can attend my upcoming workshop designed specifically for municipal staff and managers.
“Tough Calls: Tough Issues. What to Do When the Media Come Calling.” Wednesday, 20 November 2013 from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM (EST) Peterborough, ON | Peterborough Chamber of Commerce
- Refer the caller back to the councillor-in-charge or the mayor or deputy mayor, or whomever is the agreed-upon spokesperson.
Note: If the reporter tries the chummy approach, which they are certain to do in a smaller municipality where everybody knows everybody else, rely on your personal charm while you politely and firmly redirect the call back to where it belongs. This is where you are protecting your staff, and they will thank you for it.
There are lots of examples where this can, and does happen – looming garbage or transit strikes, proposed casinos, fights between various services and council. In our community, there’s an ongoing battle between the Police Services Board and the mayor, and it makes for great news copy both locally and further afield. City staff members, I’m told, have been invited to hang themselves publicly by commenting on this issue.
And a fresh one: A $40 million Buddhist Cham Sam Temple complex in the Township of Cavan Monaghan is currently under construction. Planned for the past twenty years, the temple complex now stands threatened by a proposed industrial wind turbine development. The deputy mayor has done a great job handling media calls, and the local M.P. has tabled a question in the house on wind turbine policies.
However, the temple and the wind farm is an object lesson in issues management, the overarching umbrella for media management. I’ll talk more about issues management in my next blog.