The press release problem

February 21, 2017 01:30

By J.J. Green, RTDNA Contributor

On Wednesday January, 25th 2017, I received a press release, via email, from a member of Congress who had just returned from a trip abroad. It turned out to be a fairly controversial expedition, because of the location and people this member met with while abroad.

Immediately, within five minutes, I replied to the email requesting an interview. As it happened, while I crafted the email, I saw that member appearing on a major TV network in an “exclusive interview.”

An hour and a half later, I got the following response via email: “Thanks JJ- we’re a bit packed right now but can you circle back Friday or early next week?”

The next day, Thursday, January 26th I wrote back and asked, “What's the situation? Yes or no on the interview? I would like to use it for my podcast.”

I was hoping for a possible interview on the “Friday” the sender suggested. The response was, “Hi JJ- we won’t be able to do this right now, but please stay in touch going forward.”

Perplexed, but not being naïve about the situation, I was also annoyed, because I didn’t ask to be put on their press list.

Reflecting on the situation, I realized several things.
  • The release was sent after the “exclusive interview” was already on the air.
  • It’s very possible; the member’s staff never intended to do anything more than send the press release.
  • And finally, perhaps more troubling, the email responses communicated the expectation, that if I wanted an interview, I would have to continue to ask repeatedly.
Persistence is not a problem for me, but no reporter has time to continually ask a spokesperson for an interview, especially if there is no real likelihood it will happen. That type of engagement is counterproductive.

Wondering if I was just off base, I asked WTOP Senior News Director Mitchell Miller, what he thought.

“When a government agency or congressional office puts out a news release, there’s an expectation that someone will be able to discuss the information with a reporter. This is not unreasonable, especially since the agency or office presumably felt the information was important enough to send to the media in the first place,” said Miller.
A number of colleagues have experienced the same treatment.  Recently it’s become a fairly common practice, from some federal, state and local officials.
But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.
“Simply sending out a press release or posting on social media isn’t enough. A retweet is not reporting,” Miller said. “It’s in the best interest of the organization to respond to a reporter directly, since more information can be provided, which can help tell that organization’s story or amplify on its message. Solid reporting on the government requires curiosity, attention to detail, and most importantly, developing a personal trust with federal officials.”
Tersely worded tweets, hollow statements, claiming to be “aware” of obvious events the public already knows about, and simply ignoring requests for information, have often replaced genuinely useful detail about news and events, from spokespeople.  
Miller said, “When a government agency continually puts off journalists’ request for more information – or even a basic response – it’s not just minor frustration.” That behavior, Miller said “sends an implicit message: the government has more important things to do than provide information to the public. And keep in mind that ultimately, it’s the American taxpayers who are responsible for the salaries of government officials. So it’s the public that loses.”
The speed and scope of events, in this time we live, is a part of the problem. Another part, perhaps the most important, is the gradual departure, by reporters and spokespeople, willing or not, from the process of building personal relationships.    
“At a time when social media have called into question the very definition of a fact, it is all the more reason for government officials and reporters to actually speak to one another. Accuracy demands it,” said Miller.
A cup of coffee or a phone call between a reporter and a spokesperson provides a wealth of non-verbal information that their constituencies don’t need to know about, but can definitely benefit from. The moments they spend observing each other’s body language; tone of voice, even their words choices can build empathy. That understanding can most often bridge the divide that develops between them in stressful and breaking news situations.
My recommendation to spokespeople: Keep sending the releases. But expect reporters to ask for interviews and information. Remember, if it’s important enough for you to send it with contact information for reporters to ask questions, be prepared to follow through.

JJ Green is National Security Correspondent at WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C.