Copyright Ian D. Richardson. Email:

A free guide to charities and community groups wishing to improve their relations with their local media...

by Ian D. Richardson, Preddon Lee Limited

Establishing a rapport with the news media can take time. This is especially so if you have been getting what is considered "a bad press" in the past.

I will not attempt to defend the less reputable activities of some journalists or editors, but on the whole, most wish to produce accurate, perceptive and interesting accounts of events. That they fail sometimes should not be seized upon as an excuse for refusing to talk to journalists.

In my 40 years or so as a professional journalist, I estimate that in at least 80% of cases in which individuals or organisations have poor relations with the news media, the prime cause rests with those individuals or organisations. Sometimes the unproductive relations arise from attempts to hide information of legitimate public interest, but more likely the problem lies with the inability of the individual to understand the motivations and limitations of the media.

I was once asked to advise a sizeable local charity about raising its public profile. When I spotted a story that would almost certainly have been considered by the BBC TV and ITV, my idea was vetoed on the grounds that "It's a waste of time talking to them as they will only give us five minutes." Five minutes on prime time TV? Most organisations would kill for that opportunity, but the veto stood, so I resigned in despair.

Even the best newspaper and broadcasting stations have their faults, and while you may wish to rectify these, your immediate concern ought to be the understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, if you understand these, you may be able to turn them to your advantage.

What I am saying, in short, is that your best approach is to learn to live with what you have in the way of news opportunities.

I am often told by people: "Oh, the local paper and broadcasting stations are never interested in anything I give them". My response to these folk is always to ask them what sort of stories they offered -- and just as importantly, how they presented them.

Inevitably, sad to say, they display a lack of understanding of what the media need in the way of news. It is pointless, for example, to try to interest a racy tabloid in a learned article on the complexity of the modern school examination systems, but the news editor of an education magazine may well find it newsworthy.

It all comes down to assessing, as dispassionately as possible, the opportunities available to you. You are wasting your time offering stories purely on the grounds that the media ought to be interested. That is not to say that there aren't times when it is worth pushing a story just a little because you believe that the journalist concerned has failed to recognise its news value.

Back to the subject of establishing a rapport with local journalists: There is no magic formula, simply because human beings like and respect each other for all sorts of complex reasons, but there are ways of avoiding unnecessary friction. Even if you and the journalist don't end up especially liking each other, it is important that you gain the journalist's professional respect as a reliable news source.

Here are some general tips:

+ Get to know at least one reporter on each media outlet so you can establish a direct line of contact. Discover who is responsible for what, and other useful information such as deadlines. This works both ways, as a good reporter wants to build up a list of useful contacts.

+ Avoid sounding defensive when contacted by a journalist. Be positive, regardless of whether the call concerns good or bad news. Reporters are expected to act as a Devil's Advocate and you should not over-react to what might seem hostile questioning. If you give straight, relaxed answers in plain English and convince the reporters that you are doing your best to help, any apparent hostility in the questioning may not be reflected in the story that finally appears in print or on air. I am not suggesting that replies be couched in such timid terms as to be not worth quoting. There is nothing wrong with coming back hard against provocative questions, just so long as you do not suggest to the reporters that you are personally affronted by their line of questioning.

+ If the call concerns a tricky subject, it might be in your interest to ask to go "off the record". You may then be able to explain the background to the issue and why you are restricted in what you can say publicly on the record. This is an excellent chance to put your case across privately. At the end of the conversation, the journalist may still insist on some sort of public statement, even if it is "no comment", but any article that is eventually written will be better informed. Don't overdo "off the record" comments. They should be offered merely as private guidance to the reporter and not as an excuse for never saying anything publicly, no matter how innocuous.

+ When making on the record statements, keep them as clear and to the point as possible -- and be as brief as possible. There is a lot to be said for the argument that the briefer the statement, the less chance there is of being misquoted. If you need time to think about your response, stall for time. Tell the reporter you will call back with an answer, and make sure that you do. Few things antagonise a reporter more than the failure of a news contact to carry out a promise to call back.

+ Avoid jargon and acronyms, unless they are generally well understood. Nothing is more certain to confuse and discourage reporters than comments that are couched in the rarefied language of a particular profession or area of interest. Stick to simple English.

+ Go easy on the quantity of information. Don't swamp the reporter with facts. Give a broad outline, then let the journalist ask any questions that are needed to fill out the story.

+ Think carefully about your choice of words. Are they open to ambiguity? Will they unnecessarily antagonise the reader or listener?

+ Resist the temptation to lie your way out of a tricky situation. This could very easily backfire, and at the very least, will undermine your credibility as a news source. If you can't tell the truth, give a "no comment" or perhaps resort to the stalling device of "carrying out investigations". But the latter course must be used sparingly because it will sour relations with the press if the reporters feel they are being wilfully deceived or fobbed off.

+ Don't make claims that can easily be proven wrong.

+ Keep a watch out for good news. There are many possibilities for both written and picture stories if only you can recognise them. Offer them to the local paper, but don't get upset if your offer is declined. You must accept that the news media normally have no obligation to carry an item (unless it corrects a serious error carried in an earlier issue). Editorial space is expensive. You must accept that what excites one person will bore another to death. The editor's job is to judge as dispassionately as possible what is of real interest to the readers.

+ When offering good stories or commenting on those that are perhaps not so good, always put yourself in the place of the reader, viewer or listener. Think about the things that you find interesting. Then take it a stage further and think about the things that interest your friends and associates outside your particular speciality. One more thought on this aspect: you and your friends may read the Times, the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph, but the sobering fact is that many millions more prefer the Daily Mail, the Sun or the Mirror.

+ Think ahead. If you know of a newsworthy event, don't leave it too late to contact the newspaper, magazine or broadcasting station. Try to give the editor plenty of notice, otherwise you may find that the staff have already been assigned to other stories. This is particularly so with television staff. And in the case of magazines, check what the "lead" time is. It is not uncommon for the editorial content of a magazine to have been written more than a month ahead of the publication date.

+ If you are in a high profile job, don't be reluctant to give the local newspaper a telephone number where you can be contacted easily - - even if that sometimes means giving out your home or mobile number.

+ If an appropriate opportunity arises, invite local journalists for drinks. While you have them in a convivial mood, ask them to tell you something about their operation and for any suggestions that can make coverage of affairs more effective and better balanced. Come clean and admit that you are anxious to have a good relationship with the media. This approach could pay off handsomely. The better you get to know your local journalists, the more difficult they will find it to do unjustified "knocking" stories about you.

+ Another good opportunity to improve relations with reporters is to tip them off about any stories from outside your own field that you may stumble upon. For example, if you find yourself driving past a factory that is ablaze, ring your contacts, who could be most grateful for the tip-off. Even if they are already aware of the story, your thoughtfulness will be remembered.

+ It is worth knowing that what finally gets printed or broadcast may not be exactly (or in extreme cases, even vaguely) what the reporter submitted. It is possible that the article will have been re-written by a sub-editor -- or by the editor himself.

+ If you feel that the article that finally appears has got the facts wrong to an unacceptable degree, don't be discouraged from making a polite call to the reporter to point out the error. If the matter requires some form of public correction, ask that one be published in the following issue -- or alternatively, request the publication of a Letter to the Editor, pointing out the error. If facts are seriously wrong, the editor is professionally obliged to publish some form of correction as soon as is reasonable. If the error is relatively unimportant, my advice is to shrug your shoulders and forget it. But if it is a mistake that might be repeated in the future, drop a brief note to the editor, explaining the correct situation, and asking that this be recorded in their reference files or library.

A further point: if you are in a controversial, high-profile job, it is important to be philosophical about being on the wrong end of what is perceived as "bad publicity". In most cases, this is forgotten within weeks, if not days, especially if you manage to get a later story published that shows you in a more positive light.

Adopt a realistic stance, openly accepting that the free media, for all the faults, are an essential part of a democratic society. If you assume that the media are out to get you, then your worst fears may well be realised. If, on the other hand, you accept and welcome reasonable attention from the news media, I predict that you will find their representatives in an altogether more helpful frame of mind. A better balance between "good" and "bad" stories will inevitably follow.

Finally, some words about the Internet. This is an excellent way to get your message across -- direct to the public. So, set up an official website for your organisation with an email contact and a Twitter account. The website doesn't have to be huge, but it does have to be easy to navigate and to read. The importance of the website's easy navigation and the readability of its content cannot be overstated. A very useful aid on this topic are Susannah Ross's excellent guides, Writing for the Web. Once you've set up your website, make sure the media - and the public - know the address. And make sure the website is kept up-to-date, otherwise your visitors will soon drift away.