Alarm bells are ringing in some journalistic circles concerning the Trump administration’s broadsides against the press. I don’t do political commentary since my focus remains on media training and Congressional testimony preparation for corporate and association clients. Suffice to say our First Amendment rights need to remain sacrosanct.
Leaving the politics for others, let us examine some lessons that any communicator can take from an analysis of our current climate.
Is this really such a big-league threat?
No other president has declared the press the “enemy of the American people,” so yes, this is a big deal. How much of an overarching long-term threat to freedom of the press this proves to be will play out over time.
How this affects you: Refuse to buy in to the media-bashing climate. It could well ruin your relationships with reporters which, in turn, could damage the coverage and reputation of both your company and your spokespeople.
Are reporters too thin-skinned about all of this?
It’s impossible to generalize. Some journalists are analyzing the situation thoughtfully while others are offering knee-jerk, defensive reactions. And of course there’s lots of room in the middle. Then there are those who may be taking the “duck and cover” approach, hoping to survive by staying out of the president’s line of fire. The most prescient analysis I’ve seen comes from Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post. He writes, “No industry is more interested in itself than journalism…Our tendency for navel-gazing is legendary.” He goes on to say, “The best way to combat allegations—from the president and many of his supporters—that the media is ‘the enemy’ is to simply put our heads down and do our jobs. We aren’t the story. The story is the story.” He’s right. No amount of garment rending is going to save a free press. The fact is the populace doesn’t much care for the media these days, so public opinion is not likely to be on the side of newsroom denizens. Reporters, take Cillizza’s advice: Keep your head down, source your stories impeccably, and focus on the craft.
How this affects you: Understand that these are tough times for journalism. Be sensitive to the reporters you deal with, as many feel their vocation is under fire. It’s their job to sort this out, though you can offer a word of support to those scribes with whom you have a solid professional relationship.
Haven’t past White House press offices been selective about who attends briefings?
Yes, and you may well have done this, too, in your press operations. Most of us who have been involved with media relations play favorites. Holding a news conference? Set aside the choice seats for favored journalists. Running the press office at a national meeting? Dole out prime breaking news to reporters who tend to show you in a good light. Getting requests for interviews of your CEO when a crisis strikes? Make sure relatively friendly reporters get some face time. Granted, the White House press office could have taken a less ham-handed approach. The fact remains many organizations play favorites with the press.
How this affects you: Take this as an opportunity to review your press operations. What grade would you give yourself when it comes to delivering your messages? How can you do a better job of cultivating relationships with reporters who matter to you? Would it be wise to informally survey reporters who cover your company to learn what they think you can do better?
Is there such a thing as “alternative facts?”
No, and you shouldn’t play this game. There are facts and there is opinion. When you tell your company’s story, you probably blend the two. That’s fine. Reporters seek out experts for their opinions. Of course, the more you support your opinion with fact, the more legitimate your argument becomes.
How this affects you: Common sense rules. Never play fast and loose with the facts. Lie to a reporter just once and your credibility is blown forever.
What do you think about the White House setting aside virtual seats for regional reporters from around the country?
It sounds like a good idea in terms of openness until you realize that regional reporters based in Washington have difficulty getting their questions answered during news conferences. A friend of mine who heads the bureau for an influential regional newspaper bemoans the fact that, although he has access to the White House press briefings, he is so far back in the room he has no chance of being recognized. The reporters participating remotely under the new system (reportedly chosen because they are likely to ask friendly questions) can be easily shut down with the flip of a switch.
How this affects you: Look into ways you can expand your company’s media reach. Perhaps you can establish regular Google Hangouts for reporters who cover your beat. Or ease a key reporter’s travel expenses by offering interviews with your CEO via Skype. Examine your web site to determine whether your online newsroom is easily accessible (I see too many companies that bury their newsroom several clicks deep; many reporters are not going to look that far).
Bottom line: You don’t need to become an outspoken advocate for journalism. That’s not your role as a news source. Stay in your lane while being supportive of a free press and those who toil in it.
Ask yourself how you can use this as an opportunity to improve your own media operations. In fact, why not share your ideas in the comments section?