Nowadays, delivering the county’s message not only means knowing how to prepare for media interviews with newspaper and television reporters. Counties must also become valuable information resources to reporters and creatively use county websites and social media channels to engage residents in county affairs while telling the local government story with words and pictures.
A group of seasoned county public information officers (PIO) from the National Association of County Information Officers (NACIO) gathered in July to kick off National Association of Counties 2013 County Solutions and Idea Marketplace in Tarrant County. The communications professionals offered county officials and each other advice and best practices on how to work with journalists, social media and county websites to raise awareness of county government services and limitations.
Here are some of the best advice and insights from the discussion.
1. When a reporter calls out of the blue or asks for an interview, ask three questions: What do you want to talk about? When is your deadline? When can I call you back? Even if the reporter’s deadline is later that day, having 20 to 30 minutes to think about a topic before answering questions will allow for an official to give a better interview — a win-win for both parties involved.
2. Create a set of two or three talking points to return to throughout an interview. Write the talking points down, keep them simple, have them readily available. Try to answer each question according to the talking points. PIOs recommended finding a staff member or a team to role-play with. Generate a set of expected or possible questions — who, what, when, were, why, how, why not, etc. — and practice answering them according to the message the county wants most to get across. For instance, if the county is finalizing a budget, the talking points might highlight necessity, frugality and positivity: not wanting to lose county services, items the court had to put on hold for another year and how nice the county park will be after improvements are made.
3. Answer straight-forward questions from reporters with a straight-forward response. Try not to complicate an issue by giving a response that asks more questions than it answers.
4. Anticipate and prepare for the second, third and fourth questions reporters are going to ask about a topic. Some questions may be more demanding than others, so it might be good to review the topic — especially stats or figures, background information and confirming resources to direct the reporter to — beforehand. If a question comes from left field, it’s okay to respond with an honest “I don’t know,” “I can’t comment on that” or “I’ll get back to you about that.”
5. Assign one person to serve as the messenger. The easiest way to control the county’s message is to have just one person deliver the message. If a reporter wants multiple sources or multiple interviews, try to coordinate with those sources to make sure the county’s message is being heard.
6. If you’re not the messenger, don’t speak for the commissioners court. It’s okay to speak for yourself — but make it clear who you’re speaking for.
7. Offer up experts. Reporters are always looking for sources and the county is full of professionals who can serve as experts for broad-based reports. Offer the county road and bridge department head as an expert on road repair costs; offer the health department manager as an expert on the bird flu. Offering up experts to help localize national stories or clarify local issues helps turn the county into a resource and helps counties develop stronger relationships with reporters.
8. Don’t rely on external media — become the media. Social media channels and county websites are two great places to talk about county services and their limitations, engage residents in county affairs and push county messages out to the community. Counties can use their non-traditional media outlets for fun to help generate followers and create more active online communities. County-related history and trivia, local photographs or artwork and community events can all be used to generate content.
9. Create visuals and take lots of photographs. People want to see a story more than they want to read a story, so officials looking to generate interest on an issue should brainstorm visual ways to tell the story. Take high-resolution photographs during events and create graphs for statistics and budgets.
10. Use citizen committees as mouthpieces. Citizen committees and advisory committees can be useful in making tough decisions and in discussing those tough decisions with the media and residents. One county public information officer reported that a budget advisory committee helped carry the water for the county after it was forced by fiscal deficits to cut its 23 departments down to just five. In general, the PIOs agreed that both residents and the media are more understanding and forgiving if decisions are made with the help of citizen input and backed by active neighbors.
11. Be honest. One bad headline is better than a series of bad headlines so if there’s a controversy or problem in the county, it’s better to air it out all at once than bit by bit. If the county has had a hard time maintaining its bridges and a reporter calls about deficient bridges, show the worst of the worst, discuss cost and taxpayer buy-in, offer a larger perspective about what the classification means and how widespread the problem is and give a solution going forward.
12. Find county advocates and build community teams. Work closely with members of city councils, chambers of commerce and school boards to present a united front when it comes to working for the well-being of the community and use those friends and teammates to praise the good work being done and to help dispel negative rumors or inaccurate reporting. ✯