If you know donor stewardship, you’ll know media relations

publication date: Apr 23, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
No-one knows how to relate to reporters better than a journalist working for a charity. That's the background of Wendy McCown, who told delegates at Vancouver's international conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (April 1-3) to steward reporters as though they were donors.

Just like donors, she says, reporters want to buy on emotion and justify with fact. That's why an  effective spokesperson needs passion and hope above all. Then add expertise, training, trust, believability and energy, and you'll be a grounded, tangible representative for your charity.

"Big, loud and wow aren't believable," McCown warns. You can't be a salesperson. Instead, you want to be known as someone who doesn't sensationalize when you speak to a reporter.

What reporters wish you knew

The 24-hour news cycle creates unrelenting pressures for news reporters. "The deadline is always five minutes ago," McCown explains, "so be prepared when a journalist calls." Save time by boiling down your message in advance. It's hard with complex missions and multi-faceted outcomes-but if you don't trim it to an eight-second sound bite, the reporter will have to, and you might not like the results.

Help reporters set the context of a story by sending background information ahead of time. Don't assume they understand anything. They're not nearly as well-informed about your mission and your charity as you are, and it's your job to bridge that gap as concisely as you can.

Handling interviews

During the interview, know your message and stay on it. You don't have to answer every question directly; you can bridge to your message with phrases like "You know, the bigger impact is ..." Then link your message to the original question.

Avoid statements that can be clipped out of context. "We're not that bad off" sounds very different on its own than when combined with three subsequent sentences about the funding you've managed to maintain.

Recognize that you're dealing with another human being and nurture a mutually beneficial relationship. Most reporters believe that those relationships help them compete with the horde of amateurs posting, blogging, and uploading videos without context.

Handling difficult questions

Nevertheless, you can't let that relationship influence your interviews. "The moment the interview starts, it's a business transaction no matter how good your relationship is," McCown counsels. At that moment, reporters are looking for news, not a friendly conversation.

Watch for baited questions like the classic "When did you stop beating your wife?" and challenge the underlying assumption.  Avoid repeating negative words, and watch for emotionally charged language.

You don't have to respond to rumours, she emphasizes, nor should you guess when you don't know, speak on behalf of others, or give your personal opinion rather than your organization's official position.

When you've said all you want to say on a question, just stop talking. Don't be led into saying more than you've planned, and remember that silence is just fine. In fact, she says, "it's their problem, not yours, if they have nothing on tape."

Tomorrow isn't good enough

McCown emphasizes that reporters face overwhelming time pressures. You'll start your media relationships off on the right foot if you make a habit of returning reporters' phone calls right away and offering all the help you can from the beginning.

Sounds like common courtesy in any business relationship.

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