State agencies are likely going to have contact with the media. Media contacts may be as simple as responding to an inquiry on a grant award in a community or as complex as a response to a serious incident in the state. A productive relationship is a valuable tool both for the agency and in representing government in your state or territory. In an ideal situation the SAA will be proactive and pitch some of its accomplishments to state and local news reporters rather than simply respond to media requests.
The Agency Spokesperson
Larger SAA agencies are likely to have a media relations specialist on staff, such as a public information officer (PIO) or public affairs officer (PAO). PIOs or PAOs usually have a media or public relations background and serve as the agency spokesperson, promoting the agency’s programs and accomplishments. In smaller agencies, the role of PIO may be filled by a member of the staff or the SAA director. Whoever assumes this role should have the full cooperation of all staff as he or she will often be the first person to respond to inquiries from the media. In controversial situations, the first response can set the tone for how or whether the media report on a story. SAAs will find it valuable to predetermine the point of contact in advance of the need to respond to a media request and ensure that all agency staff direct media inquiries to the appropriate spokesperson(s).
SAA directors should work closely with their staff information officer to set policy regarding media relations and agency publicity. Policy should determine who is authorized to speak on behalf of the agency, what information is available for release (it is imperative to have an understanding of state and federal public records laws); the rules governing electronic correspondence such as e-mail and web site postings, and protocols for working with other agencies. The policy should be consistent with guidance or policy set by the Governor’s Office and available in writing so all parties are on the same page.
Almost certainly, members of the agency staff will have expertise that would serve well in an interview (either in print or broadcast). For example, if an agency issues a report on sex offender recidivism rates, the lead research analyst would be an in high demand for interviews. In such cases, the director or the PIO should work closely with that staff member to prep him/her for the interview. The PIO should be present for the interview. Whenever possible, agencies should ask for interview questions ahead of time. If this is not possible, request an outline of the subject(s) to be discussed. When dealing with broadcast media, television, or radio, keep in mind that the staff member should be able to “speak in sound bites.” Generally, no more than 10–20 seconds of what they say at one time will be used on air. No broadcast interview is worse than one with a nervous or timid spokesperson. Agencies must keep this in mind when they choose who will give an interview. A staff member may be an expert in their field, but he or she must be able to speak clearly and smoothly in an interview.
Even if an agency has a PIO, the agency head is always the primary spokesperson. Therefore, directors without media relations experience should receive media training. Most metropolitan markets offer media training for professionals through a community college or university, media consultant, or public relations firm. Training should include identifying an audience, learning the basics of written and oral communication, an introduction to public speaking, and, if possible, on-camera training.
Communicating To Other Audiences
The best communication strategy – proactive media relations – comes with a large caveat: the SAA must always remember that close, and timely contact with the governor’s office is critical before initiating a proactive media stance on any issue. In many instances, prior approval will be critical. In others, the governor may want to initiate the contact. In situations when an agency is allowed to proceed with a proactive stance, the PIO will serve as the agency publicist. The PIO can form working relationships with members of the media that will give an agency advantages when trying to promote programs or help grant recipients promote their accomplishments.
Grant awarding activities offer a variety of opportunities for publicity. When an agency receives a large federal grant, the executive director may want to use the opportunity to prepare a press release detailing the grant amount, the programs funded, and the benefit to the community at large. In addition, the director can work with his or her PIO to gather success stories and promote the effectiveness of grant-funded programs. Where smaller agencies do not have a dedicated PIO, work with the subgrantee to help promote successes. This might include providing fact sheets (e.g., reporting the number of methamphetamine lab seizures in the funded cycle); or documenting personal success stories (e.g., an inmate who has successfully completed a residential substance abuse treatment program). Directors should discuss specific areas they want promoted with the PIO.
The PIO can also assist with other important communications such as preparing information for members of Congress or the state legislature. As Congress appropriates funding for the programs OJP grantees administer, it is advisable to let state and federal representatives know about the successful programs and projects being funded in their districts. The PIO can contact the staff person who handles criminal justice issues and open lines of communication between the SAA and the congressional office. Staff of the agency being acknowledged should also be informed to avoid them being caught off-guard by a follow-up question or contact from a legislative staffer or the media.
If an agency sends annual reports to congressional offices, the PIO should prepare an executive summary or corresponding fact sheet with the most relevant points; congressional staffers are extremely busy and may not have time to read an 80‑page report on JAG programs. However, a one- or two-page fact sheet with charts and graphs can provide the most important information, such as how many inmates received substance abuse treatment through federal funding, how many arrests a drug task force made, and how many first-time drug offenders were diverted to drug courts.
Other specific audiences may include academic institutions, community groups, peer networking groups, and subgrantees. A PIO can help write speeches for the director to deliver to these groups or make appearances before them on behalf of the agency.
There are a variety of methods and media to get an agency’s message out, and the method will likely depend on the audience. Agencies should always coordinate these strategies, particularly press releases and press conferences, with the governor’s office.
Press Release. Press releases should be one to three pages in length and offer a brief overview of the subject, preferably with quotes from the governor and program experts; contact name and information of the press release author; a brief description of the agency and its mission; and any relevant follow-up information, such as the titles of related reports and web site addresses.
Media Advisory. This is a shorter document, usually less than one page in length, sent to reporters to let them know of a press conference or other similar public appearance (e.g.., a speech, award ceremony, or photo opportunity). A media advisory gives a short overview of what is going to take place at the event, not the detailed information a press release conveys.
Press Conference. If an agency has a particularly newsworthy event, a director may want to put together a press conference. A press conference takes time to plan and accommodations must be in place for reporters. Choose an area that is conducive to both print and broadcast reporters (i.e.., one that has good sound quality, good lighting, and appropriate background). Agencies should distribute a media advisory in advance detailing the topics that will be covered. The PIO should prepare the spokesperson.
Web Site. A web site is an excellent medium for promoting programs. Press releases, fact sheets, annual reports, success stories, and other important information should be included on the site. Also, if possible, web sites should offer links to positive media coverage, but remember: agencies must always obtain permission in advance from the media source.
Social Media. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, include a variety of web-based technologies being used by individuals and organizations to communicate a range of information, and are particularly attractive as inexpensive resources. Equally important to consider is the purpose for which a social media might be utilized and the time needed to keep content fresh.
Newsletter. A newsletter is the perfect vehicle for articles about agency programs—the SAA controls the message. Online versions deliver information quickly and save money so many agencies no longer produce hard-copy versions of their newsletters. Online newsletters may also be delivered to a wide audience, including interested community members who visit the agency’s site and sign up to receive updates or other information.
Local Public Affairs Programming. If the local media market includes public affairs programming, an SAA may want to consider contacting the producers to offer story ideas, such as methamphetamine education programs, crime prevention campaigns, and victim assistance programs. Keep in mind the producer will probably expect the director or staff to participate in any story focusing on agency work.
Journal Articles. If there are subject experts on staff, the director may be able to work with them to publish articles in professional journals that explain best practices developed through the program area, such as reduced recidivism for inmates who complete residential substance abuse treatment programs.
Strategies for Handling Tough Questions and Issues
Stay on Message. When confronted with a tough question, a spokesperson must stay on message and not get off track. He or she should be consistent; if the reporter tries to steer away, an interviewee should stay firmly, but politely, on topic. For example, after a tough question, good responses include: “That’s an interesting question, but what I want to say is ....” or “I think we're getting off track here, the main point I want to make here is....” If the reporter asks for example how a spokesperson “feels” about an issue, he or she should give the same answer they gave before. There is no room for personal opinions, only professional ones.
Stay Calm. A spokesperson should never get emotional or angry. If the reporter gets out of line or is overly aggressive, he or she has the option of politely ending the interview.
Anticipate Controversy. If an agency may become involved in controversy over its conduct, a director should be proactive and undertake damage control; attack the controversy before it attacks the agency. This will help protect the agency’s reputation and credibility when a major problem arises that leads to public scrutiny. In particular, agencies should 1) develop a crisis communication plan to formulate more comprehensive ideas and explanations and 2) anticipate potentially difficult questions.
Test the Agency’s Message. Agencies should ask colleagues to evaluate messages to make sure they are solid. The interview should be driven by an agency’s messages, not by the questions.
Speak Clearly. State talking points clearly and briefly. Avoid doublespeak, government- speak, or jargon—phrases no one else understands. Speak in plain language. Organize ideas logically. Use appropriate words. Use an active rather than passive voice when speaking. It is better to say, “The agency has identified four problem areas” rather than, “Four problem areas have been identified.”
Never Do the Following:
Say “No Comment” or “Off the Record.”First, “no comment” implies guilt. And second, always assume that anything said in an interview will be printed or broadcasted.
Don’t Get Defensive or Criticize. Always remain calm, positive and try not to take anything personally. In addition, avoid inappropriate language or offensive remarks. Never swear, use slang or vulgar language, or say anything that could even remotely be construed as off-color, sexist, or racist.
Don’t Guess. Never mislead or guess when you don’t know the answer, and above all, do not confirm something you do not know to be true. Rather, offer to follow up later or refer to your PR representative.
Comment on what others have said. This is particularly so if the spokesperson has not read or heard anything about the remarks.
Don’t Discuss Non-Public Announcements.Never discuss non-public announcements with the media unless agreed upon in advance with your PR agency (in case of an embargoed release).