In May and June of 2020, the analytical platform VoxUkraine and the Center of Journalism of the Kyiv School of Economics were teaching employees of the Accounting Chamber, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Economic Development, State Customs Service and State Fiscal Service to cooperate with the media. Based on the results of 15 hours of lectures and trainings, experienced editors Lyudmyla Smolyar and Otar Dovzhenko have prepared a series of practical materials for anyone who wants to establish a warm relationship with journalists.
Today we publish the first material based on the lectures of the head of the VoxCheck project Maxim Skubenko and the head of the project “On the other side of news” Alyona Romaniuk.
The media value information from official sources. Such sources are government agencies. However, the information itself is not enough to make the media interested in telling about it. To establish contact with journalists, it is necessary not only to report facts, but also to learn to “wrap” them in a familiar and convenient for journalists cover: to provide information promptly, making sure that it is accurate, relevant, specific and fits the format of news, an analytical article, a TV show or any other material that can be made about you. This text lists the tips for civil servants on how to communicate with journalists before, during, and after collaboration in order to find a common ground and collaborate effectively for both sides.
Before cooperating with media:
Decide what, to who and why you are reporting. The answers to these questions will help you understand which media and in what formats to work with, and whether you need this collaboration in principle.
Make sure that the institution has a common position on information for the media, or at least the unified way to communicate it. If there is one permanent and qualified person who communicates with the media on behalf of the institution, this will simplify the task. So…
If you can, hire a professional communicator who will speak to journalists on behalf of your institution. There are specialists who know how to present information clearly. If you can’t do that, delegate it to them.
Learn to distinguish between events and news. “The event took place”, “the minister met with…”, “a conference was held”: these are events that the media is mostly uninterested to write about (at least because all of this is already in the past). Instead, the news is the most important thing that can be said based on the results of the event: for example, “the retirement age will be raised” (this was announced at a press conference), or “a doctor’s prescription will be needed to buy such drugs” (the minister told). Any news can and should be formulated in one sentence. If you do so, and make this sentence as a headline of press releases, it will be easier to get the interest of journalists.
Find out about the audience of the media you want to work with: who reads, watches or listens to it. How old are these people, where do they live, what are they interested in, how much do they earn and so on. Sometimes online media indicate this on their About Us page, sometimes in the section about cooperation with advertisers. If the site does not have such information, you can contact the media editor and ask. The answer will show whether your topic fits this media and whether it is designed for the people you would like to reach. If there is a need to reach as large audience as possible, it is necessary to turn to national channels (television is the main source of news for Ukrainians), but reporting news to the residents of the regions is better through their local media. Sometimes it makes sense to work with media that have a small but specific audience, for example, they are read by experts in your field, and you want to tell the news to them in particular.
Find out who owns the media. This way you can guess what rhetoric it promotes, what interests it defends and whether your information is consistent with it. If not, it can be twisted.
Create the media database. Record names of the media, names of their editors and journalists, contacts and your own notes about them, for example, materials they have already made about you. This will help you to find the necessary contacts at the right time, for example, when you need to correct a mistake in a publication about you.
Keep track of what is written about you. This can be done manually by reading and reviewing content of the media. You can also use the Telegram bot “MediaMonitoringBot”, which searches for publications in online media by keywords, or the free “Google alerts” service, which does the same.
Meet journalists who have already been writing about you, or who specialize in your topic. Personal contacts facilitate regular cooperation and help to resolve conflicts more easily. If you do not have the opportunity to meet in person, at least add them to your friends on social media.
Help media workers. For example, you can inform journalists of who and on what topics is competent to comment on from your institution. The media always need specialists who know and want to give comments, so they will definitely turn to you. Another option is to organize a meeting for journalists and tell in detail how your institution operates. So they will be a need to prepare some material.
Offer something exclusive. The media are interested in being read by as many people as possible, because this affects their income indirectly, through the interest of advertisers. Exclusive is exactly what can arouse the interest of the audience, therefore journalists strive to get it.
If you take part in an on-air TV show, watch previous issues of the program. This way you will imagine in what style the TV hosts communicate and what can be expected from them.
If you prepare a press conference, determine its topic and speakers. There should be one topic and a maximum of five speakers. Agree with them on their theses and prepare a press release. Ask journalists to be accredited in advance, so you know how many people to expect. Make an event that lasts about an hour and do not plan it for the very beginning or end of the working day, or working week, as at this time not all willing journalists will be able to come.
If you plan to speak off the record, be sure to warn reporters in advance about it and remind them several times during the conversation. Make sure journalists understand and agree to this condition. Use this format, if you think it is important for journalists to know information that they will not be able to publish in order to have a general understanding of the situation.
Use social media. According to the study by the Institute of Mass Information in 2020, the media most often take information for news it is from social networks, even more often than from press releases. Therefore, government agencies should have and actively fill in the pages on social networks, in particular on Facebook. Sometimes a post on a Facebook page of an institution has a greater response, than the same publication sent to the media by mail or published on the website. Executives and employees of institutions should also communicate on social media, this helps to make acquaintances and maintain contacts with journalists. If it is understandable from your personal page what you specialize in, journalists will probably ask you for comments in your field. However, keep in mind that the information on your personal page may be perceived as the official position of the institution where you work. If this is not the case, emphasize it.
During cooperation with media:
Adapt your information to the format of a specific media. For news agencies and most of online media, the facts you want to report and comments on those facts are important. So carefully add relevant quotes from experts to your message. It will make life easier for journalists and increase your chances of being published in the media. For TV content, think in advance what picture, i.e. visuals, you will offer journalists to shoot, who of your colleagues can speak briefly and meaningfully on camera (such statements are called “synchronous” by the media) and whether you have a character in mind for the story. A character, usually, is an “ordinary” person, on whose example it is possible to explain the topic of the TV episode: say, if we are talking about medical reform, the character can be a patient who will tell about his experience of treatment. Journalists can take care of all of these by themselves, but they will also be grateful for your help and will be more willing to create material about you.
Avoid professional vocabulary. If it is impossible to avoid, explain it in simple words. The terms you are familiar with may not be clear to journalists and the audience. Journalists may not be interested in too confusing and complex information at all, or if they are interested, they may distort it. The simpler you speak, the less misunderstandings there will be.
Stop using passive constructions such as “there was done”, “it was fulfilled”, “it was decided”. Always replace them, so that it is clear what was done and by whom: “the minister signed the order” instead of “the order was signed”, “meeting participants decided” instead of “it was decided at the meeting” and so on. It sounds more understandable and familiar.
Divide long sentences into several sentences and long paragraphs into several paragraphs. Studies have shown that readers view the text in a trajectory similar to the English letter F. So place the most important things at the beginning of the text, and then at the beginning of paragraphs.
Speak and write in a normal way, the way you would communicate with a friend or relative. Instead of writing “In this month, payments to the population of retirement age were tripled”, write “In February, retirees received so much hryvnia. This is three times more, than in January. ” Don’t worry about not sounding serious or professional enough. Official jargon is not inherent in everyday language and does not make you more professional, it only hinders understanding between you and the people you are addressing to.
Speak on the merits of the case. The more specific and less self-praising and empty chatter is in your words, the more willing journalists will be to communicate with you.
Do not say or write what you are not sure about. In most cases, journalists who work with news lack time to check information properly. So if you make a mistake, it can get in the media. Take care of fact-checking by yourself. In the case of speaking on-air, do not give exact figures or other facts if you doubt them, or warn that they are approximate.
Explain the context or background of the statement you announce to the media. Even if you think that everyone knows it. Remember that journalists are rarely experts on your subject, so they may not know what preceded your information, and may not understand its significance in the wider context.
Journalists should not be considered as enemies, if they criticize you and ask you pointed questions: this is part of their job. If the media is positioned as adhering to professional standards, you have the right to politely insist that your position is covered adequately, and that the meaning of your words is not distorted. In dealing with a journalist whose manner seems too aggressive to you, you have the right to set boundaries and draw “red lines”, for example, to refuse to discuss your private life in advance. However, avoid public conflicts with journalists whenever possible, they always do you more harm than good.
Do not waste time on media that “bump you off”. If you see that a certain media outlet is consistently trying to discredit you or your institution, speaks about you only in a negative way, takes your words out of context, turns the broadcast with your participation into a scandal, etc., refuse to cooperate with it. In response to the request for comment, explain why you do not want to communicate with representatives of this media, and offer to use the message of your official page or to send a request. for information.
After cooperation with media:
Show gratitude. If you have received quality material about your work, find the contacts of the journalist and / or editor, and write about your impressions. Such personal communication does not require much effort, but helps to establish constant and productive cooperation with specific media.
Express your complaints calmly. If you believe that journalists have made a mistake or twisted up information, tell them about it in person, summarizing the true version and explaining what is wrong with their material. For the most part, they make mistakes unintentionally and are interested in correcting inaccuracies as soon as possible. Threats of lawsuits, accusations of unprofessionalism, or public blaming in the style of “those journalists have twisted everything up again” are unlikely to help achieve the desired result. If the media is adequate and declares compliance with professional standards, it is enough to contact them and explain what is wrong.
Don’t try to fight fakes that are spread about you on purpose. The media that do this do not care about their professional reputation, are not interested in correcting distorted information, and are generally not afraid of court threats. Defeating a fake while trying to spread an anti-fake is also very difficult, these two materials will almost never be read by the same people. Instead of publicly denying lies and accusing intentional distributors of fakes by drawing attention to their publications and increasing their audience, make sure that truthful information is available to journalists and all those interested.
This material was prepared under the Budget Watchdog project with the support of the German Government’s project “Good Financial Governance in Public Finance III”, implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations