Improving relations with city hall is a two-way street

by | Dec 1, 2009 | Articles | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/December 2009

A fire chief is suspended without pay after he takes his nephew, and another firefighter off his working shift, for a joy ride on the city’s fire boat. Is this newsworthy?

Three local firms are vying to become airport manager in what has become a contentious process. A committee, on a 4-3 vote, recommends the existing vendor to the city council, even though the proposal exceeds the low bid by $100,000 over the life of the five-year contract. Should citizens know who voted for which vendor?

Editors and reporters most assuredly will answer “yes” to both questions. The newspaper tracked down both stories, but only after pressing our regular contacts at city hall.

I’ve used these two scenarios when addressing public officials on how to strengthen media relations. My premise: Be prepared to share the bad as well as the good news, the sensitive as well as the feel-good stories. In fact, it’s in their best interests to initiate the coverage. Such a pro-active stance can reap long-term dividends.

The advice is equally appropriate for newsrooms.

The press and the government too often are pitted as adversaries. That doesn’t have to be the norm. Newsrooms should continue their aggressive pursuit of news. At the same time, editors and reporters should be diligent in developing relationships with newsmakers who can be uncooperative in sharing “all the news.”

Here are some tips to help break down the barriers.

  • Introduce yourself: Have you ever asked someone for a favor? You’re most successful if you have an established relationship. The same holds true when seeking information from public officials– especially if the news is unflattering from their perspective.
  • Initiate coverage early: Short notice is a common reason for editors to turn down requests for news coverage. Turn the tables for a moment and think how many times a staff has been aware of an event but waits to be approached for coverage. Create a master calendar that includes everything from the fire station open house to local government budget workshops to student recognition events. Contact the appropriate individuals to explore coverage well in advance.
  • Lay the groundwork: Nothing’s more frustrating for editors than being pitched a story without really understanding its significance. The unfortunate result is that the individual is dissatisfied with the coverage, and the newspaper misfires on an important story. Proper preparation will result in a more substantive story for readers. Local government budgets provide an excellent example. The numbers can take months to prepare and tweak, yet many reporters don’t see the finished product until the meeting where it is adopted.
  • Entertain submissions. Any staff, no matter its size, cannot be everywhere. Submitted stories and photos can be an excellent substitute. This doesn’t mean a free-for-all; develop and publicize ground rules.
  • Localize state and national stories. This practice produces solid news stories and is a great way to give attention to local public affairs on a regular basis.
  • Provide other avenues such as guest columns. A word of caution: Be sure the columns are more than a PR pitch. These contributions can complement and supplement coverage, especially for newspapers strapped for resources.

All these examples are opportunities to say “yes” to requests for coverage. They serve the dual purpose of improving relationships with city hall and providing substantive content for newspapers.

Don’t be misled, however. Despite your best efforts, relationships with newsmakers won’t always be rosy. Editors still will have legitimate reason to reject some requests, and reporters still will confront resistance in their pursuit of “bad” news.

In a nutshell, newsmakers must learn to volunteer the bad news and the good news. And newspapers – even in their roles as government watchdogs – must be as receptive to covering the good news as they are to digging for the bad news. Developing relationships can be slow and agonizing, and it’s a neverending process.

Strengthening these relationships is hard work. It requires effort from both sides, and it’s best to take baby steps. So here’s a starter.

Imagine the reaction if you invite the local city manager to coffee, and present ideas for expanding substantive coverage of city hall. You might be surprised at where the conversation leads, and – most important – your readers stand to be the ultimate beneficiary.