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Providing Information To Reporters Without Shooting Yourself In The Foot

Note: This is a continuation in a series on media relations. To start from the beginning, go here

Most often reporters will want some specific information–because it is what they think they need. When a reporter calls for some specific information, it often becomes clear that what they really need is something else.

The bottom line is that you should provide whatever you are asked for.  However, you should also steer them to the information that is best for their story.

This can be better examined with reference to two of the five golden rules.

More information is better than less information.

Don’t just provide what a reporter is looking for. Most often reporters also benefit from gaining some additional information.

Here is a tip.  Sometime reporters will contact you and tell you they are sending over a open records request for some information.  If they are entitled to the information through the open records laws, why not say something like,

“Well, you could file a records request…or you can just come over and I’ll get you whatever you need.”

When I was at the Department of Public Instruction, I always made the point, when someone mentioned an open records request, that there was no need to file one.  I invited them over and offered them a cup of coffee and a key to the file cabinet.

I figured that meeting the reporter in person would allow me to provide the information with some additional context, allow me to shape the story or figure out how to respond.

As it turned out, very few reporters even took me up on my offer and dropped their requests.

Of course, there is some information that you cannot share, such as pupil records that can be used to identify a student.

If someone requests pupil information, tell them that they simply cannot have it.  They know better. But do offer other information.

When providing information always provide context

I always try to provide information within its context.  Whether with “Post It” notes or a cover page, explain what information you are providing, what it means, and how it relates to the story.

Remember Steve?  Steve needs a story.  Make it easy on him by making the information easy to follow.  I use “Post Its” with arrows, in order to say, “This is what you want!”

Another pertinent issue is what to do if a reporter asks for information that makes you look bad.

The answer is that if they are asking for that kind of information, and it’s public information, you have to share it.  Not only should you do so, but, more importantly, you should be falling all over yourself to share it.  Why?

Because the reporter is going get the information anyway and if you make it difficult for them you lose out on your chance to shape the story.  Plus, reporters who sense that you are hiding something will make a much bigger story out it.

I know this advice is different than what many people advise, but I have learned this lesson the hard way.

Now let’s talk about context…

Returning to something I alluded to earlier, in most cases, when school districts get into trouble it is not because they have done something wrong, but because what they have done has been taken out of context.

Context is critical when providing information to reporters.

It is always important to share not only what decision was made, but why it was made, how it was made, what information was used to make the decision, and if it was a bad decision, how the district is moving forward.

Provide the information that has been requested and work to provide answers through a statement, an interview, or additional information.

But what if the reporter also needs a quote, an on-camera interview, or a sound bite?  Whether we are working with a newspaper, television, or radio reporter, the preparation is the same.

Tune in tomorrow for the next post in this series.

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