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In Defense of Speaking to the Press

Posted in: Insights

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Alison Omens, Senior Adviser

This summer, a debate that occasionally pops up raged again in Washington – how interactions between journalists and sources should be governed. The debate centered on the White House and its firm control over who is quoted and when. But it’s a debate that plays out in many organizations for a number of reasons, and it’s one worth examining.

This debate usually revolves around one of several fronts: the rules around the conversations themselves; the rules around who is allowed to speak to the press; and what relationships between journalists and organizations actually mean.

As someone who’s worked in PR for almost a decade, I’m often assumed to be the person who advocates for complete control over which quotes and conversations said to the press are for public consumption.

Yet I’ve found that an ironclad grip on these interactions can create more challenges than benefits. There’s an inherent assumption in exchanges like these – an assumption of trust. As evidenced by the current political climate, as trust starts to break down, so do real conversations. The trust is on both sides – reporters trust their sources to be honest, deliver fair information and not lead them astray. Sources trust reporters not to misrepresent them, trick them, or make them look stupid (for example: cutting out every umm, pause or unclear sentence).

That trust exists so people can talk to one another with authenticity. When we start to build in checks and balances and become so image conscience that we want control of every word attributed to us, we lose the genuine relationship that develops between a source and a reporter.

There’s an addendum to the checks and balances that I want to defend, and I know can drive journalists crazy: “Minders” or three-person interviews when journalists expect two. Often the point of the third person is to nudge and make sure nothing gets missed. But there’s utility for the third person as well. Often I ask the person doing the interview if I can sit in so I can hear how they’re characterizing an issue and how they interpret it for my own education, and yes, so I can give pointers to them later. That’s a practice that can be very useful for everyone, and PR people deserve a leap of faith from reporters.

The second rule worth reconsidering is the one about who is permitted to speak to the press. When we become protective of the “who,” we lose valuable growing experiences for leaders within an organization. I believe that we should be expanding people’s skills and experiences and recognizing that an inherent part of becoming more senior is knowing how to be a spokesperson. We wait far too long to give people that experience. It astonishes me when very senior people in organizations have never spoken to the press and are scared about the possibility. We need to be identifying opportunities for lower level people to speak on the record to reporters – no, probably not the Washington Post – about their areas of expertise. There’s no other way to learn.

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Which leads me to a related point. We shouldn’t shy away from a diversity of voices within an organization. It’s often the case that one or two people speak for the organization, and that’s it. It shouldn’t be like this. Organizations have a number of experts and those experts should be representing the organization. Otherwise press doesn’t get the benefit of the deep level of experience, and the public, donors, legislators and others don’t see the breadth of knowledge. We should be trumpeting diversity of thought leadership – not hiding it.

When I train people on media relations, I always include a conversation about building relationships with journalists. And there’s a note at the end that reminds people that journalists aren’t your friends. They’re ultimately doing their job, and you’re doing yours, which has some inherent tension. But we’ve strayed so far to the opposite pillar that I believe, as PR professionals, it’s time to encourage some more forthrightness.

Ultimately, a more meaningful relationship between journalists and sources is a good thing for both parties. Sources can trust that the journalist is fair and straightforward in their reporting. They can also trust that the journalist is more interested in a long-term relationship than a one-time story, which means they feel responsibility to maintain that relationship. And journalists can feel like they’re getting the straight, honest answers they want. Let’s all take a leap of faith, shall we?