Not balanced

Wah.

The concept of “balance” in a TV news story is tricky.   When people act a fool, odds are they’ll get coverage that highlights their foolishness.  When people in government do wrong or commit egregious mistakes, the coverage will reflect that newsworthy fact.   By definition, it will be unbalanced.  And it can still be good journalism.

Here’s a tip for public information officers (PIOs) who have to speak on behalf of individuals with government agencies who screw up:  Talk about it.  Own up to it.  Be honest.  Make the release of information timely.  Or, at least pay lip service to the concept of answering questions and exploring the issue that has suddenly thrust you into the spotlight.

And if you don’t, then don’t cry about the coverage you got.

Some weeks ago, I dealt with a government agency that screwed up, inadvertently victimizing an innocent person in the process.  I’m not going to name the agency or its spokesperson (it’s not a local law enforcement agency).  The agency doesn’t have a reputation for mistake-prone boneheadedness, and I’d never dealt with the spokesperson before.

I called the PIO, who quickly sent me a one-line e-mail acknowledging my voice mail message.  Six hours passed before the spokesperson communicated further.  I missed the phone call, which came shortly before my story aired.  Minutes later, I got an e-mail with a bland statement saying the agency “had reason to believe” its screwed-up behavior was based on good information.  There was no further explanation of the “reason,” which was at the heart of my inquiry.

The story aired.  The next day, I got a terse e-mail from the PIO complaining the piece was “one sided,” and that I’d failed to include verbatim the spokesperson’s “had reason to believe” line into my piece.

Really?

With great restraint, I sent the spokesperson an e-mail:

“I note and respect your criticism of my story…  I would like to chat with you or your designee on-camera about the specific point you emphasize in your note, eg. the reasons you (screwed up).  This would give you an on-camera opportunity to shape the story to your satisfaction, an opportunity (your agency) declined yesterday.”

The spokesperson replied by saying it would be “inappropriate” to provide an interview because an investigation was “ongoing.”

Ron Ziegler, 1973

  • Side rant:  Investigative agencies routinely give information about, and provide interviews detailing, “ongoing investigations.”   Examples:  Any interview with a fedora-wearing detective at a crime scene; any cold-case interview.  Yet spokespersons for such agencies use the “ongoing investigation” as excuses to withhold information and especially interviews, and expect reporters to take this excuse seriously.  I am forever restraining an incredulous chortle when I hear this excuse; it’s unprofessional to openly make fun of PIOs who think they’re offering serious-minded reasoning when they aren’t.
  • Obviously, there is proprietary information in certain ongoing investigations that can and should be withheld.   Reporters expect that.  But using it as an excuse for a news blackout is just plain lazy.  (And when PIOs hear this excuse from higher-ups in their agencies, they should demand a higher-quality excuse.)

So this is what we get:  An agency that screwed up; declined to provide timely or responsive information; declined two interview requests — and complained that the coverage was one-sided.

And this, from an agency with a reputation for a measure of sophistication and serious-mindedness.

I don’t know where public information officers come from.  Perhaps there’s a Ronald L. Ziegler School of Spokesmanism someplace, which churns out obfuscating publicists who learn to distrust reporters and shade the truth.  It’s unlikely that school’s teachers want any advice from me.

But for those hiring a PIO, though, allow me this:  Generally speaking, the best spokesmen / women are former reporters.  There are plenty of them out there.  Hire one.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

10 thoughts on “Not balanced

  1. Sam

    Wow, you’ve become quite the blowhard. Come down from on high, there air is thin up there.
    I’d love to give a few classes to reporters too, but, like you, they might not want that (ie: sticking one’s feet in doors to force an interview, climbing on a political stage during a live broadcast and knocking a flag down in the process, I could keep going). I do agree with you the PIO’s primary mistake was to complain if he chose a limited response. There are many moving parts to a story involving a government agency and often the reporter comes with most of his story already written.
    While it is true that most, if not all PIOs do not have journalistic backgrounds and they are often doing the best that they can in an environment that is not always condusive to reporters, to say that reporters would make the best PIOs, that’s a bold statement. I’d predict that a fair amount would be tossed out for not having a good understanding of all of those previously mentioned moving parts and that agency itself.

    Reply
    1. Element

      A few points, if I may:

      * Doug is not, and is not trying to be, a blow-hard. If anything I’d guess he’s probably trying to help by giving another perspective for PIO’s to think about.

      * Reporters stick feet in doors because agencies run and hide from facts, rather than provide intelligent answers (and no that’s does not include trying to use “fancy” words far, far outside their intelligence grade). A PIO with any sense would know how to deal & spin. But a PIO with that much sense is about as hard to find as a Pepsi within a hundred miles of this place.

      * Knocking down flags happens. It’s called an accident, mixed with live TV.

      * You’re right. There are a lot of moving parts to most agencies. And it is a PIO’s job to have enough sense to know how to give enough information to pacify a reporter, hopefully in a timely manner. But, more importantly, to pacify who both he and the reporter work for- the people (that’s the public part of their title). THAT’S THEIR JOB! Again, know how to mix a few facts with a lot of “batter”.

      * Reporters typically do make the best PIO’s because they understand the most important part- public & information. People at home really don’t give a chit about the agencies “moving parts” and reporters understand that.

      * So, reporters come with most of their story written, eh? Hum. I think their editors would beg to differ! And it’s a presumptive notion to have, along with just being flat-out wrong. But I guess you’d have to be knowledgeable in the media/information business to really understand that, not wouldn’t ya?

      Reply
  2. Mr. Bear

    Blowhard or not, Doug has pointed out the inconvenient reality that PIO’s end up viewing the world from their narrow perspective, whether it is necessary or not. In the same way, regulators end up viewing the world from the perspective of the industry that they regulate.

    Put another way, in many cases, the PIO ultimately works for the taxpaying public. The public information officer is delegated to inform the public and the reporter is the agent of the public, for better or worse.

    Petty egos aside, it’s the nature of the relationship and the PIO can be forthcoming, or as forthcoming as the circumstances allow, or not. And if the PIO is not forthcoming and circumstances later prove that they were concealing something that was important public information, they’re going to get beat over the head with it. Or lose whatever credibility they had prior to that event.

    Consider the Kathryn Johnston case as an example.

    Reply
  3. Sam

    Element, apply for the job and lets see what happens. I won’t waste any of my time responding further. Your experience with Dekalb is not representative of most govt agencies nor PIOs.

    Mr. Bear, unfortunately, many PIOs have to comply with policies/manuals/guidelines that dictate what is/isn’t releaseable (at that moment anyway). The perception that an agency has to hand over information just because a reporter is asking isn’t quite accurate and a failure to do so isn’t a derelication of a PIO’s duties. Not sure where you were going with the Kathyrn Johnston matter as it relates to the PIO aspect. The travesty was the actions of the officers, not the PIO.

    Reply
    1. Element

      Not for all the tea in China would I apply for that thankless, crap job! But thank you for not wasting any more of my time by not responding further and telling ME about MY ‘experiences’? I really appreciate that, sport!

      Reply
  4. English Major

    Fair disclosure: I am a PIO, although not the one in question and I have no knowledge of this incident. PIOs are like any other spokesperson – most of us can only recommend to those we answer to what the response should/could be, not mandate it. Many of us are not autonomous, and our higher-ups don’t always take our recommendations, eloquent as they may be. That’s their privilege, ill-advised as (of course) we think it may be. Also, we are often only able to respond to journalists as quickly as we are responded to about the issue internally, and it can be just as frustrating to us, since we are the ones on the front lines. Do we make mistakes? Sure. But we know – or should know – that relationships with reporters are important in this business, so we try to be helpful. Many of us work for (multiple) superiors who say outright that they distrust “the media” and will stonewall as much as possible, even though most public agency info is available through open records. Even reminding them of that fact doesn’t always work. With all due respect, hiring a journalist as a PIO isn’t an automatic panacea. It all depends on the environment and who’s running the show.

    Reply
  5. live apt fire Post author

    Thanks for the input. Part of my rationale for writing the post was to start a conversation like this one. Sam — if you’d like to write a more detailed critique, contact me (see “contact live apt fire” upper right) and I’ll consider giving it front-page treatment.

    I think the reporter / PIO relationship is, generally speaking, more troubled now than I’ve ever seen it. Much of it may be rooted in English Major’s observation about the PIO’s higher-ups, and their distrust of the media. Some of that distrust is well-earned, unfortunately.

    At the same time, we’re often criticized for failing to report the “whole story,” frequently by the very people who withhold key pieces of info. The “moving parts” described by Sam may justify a lack of responsiveness internally. It seems to me that the PIO’s job is to cut through that stuff when possible, and I’m sure many battles are fought that we never know about.

    Btw, I didn’t intend to infer that PIOs without reporting backgrounds are substandard. Most police agencies use cops as PIOs and I can name many who are / were excellent, like Dana Pierce at Cobb PD and Jeff Turner at Clayton PD. I can also name a reporter or two who didn’t handle PIO duty well, though I won’t here.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: PIOs vs. Reporters « 3CMApplanta

  7. Chas

    I believe rule one of crisis management in PR is to get ahead of a situation, and put a pretty face to it. One line emails just before airtime show a lack of understanding about the “public information” part of “public information officer.” A quick interview to spin the situation may not have done much for their case, but it would have balanced the coverage, and avoided what could potentially be an adversarial relationship. This obviously isn’t an easy task, just ask BP!

    Reply

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