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Published:June 15th, 2008 19:58 EST
Do's and Don'ts Dealing with the Media

Do's and Don'ts Dealing with the Media

By SOP newswire2

(The following article is taken from the U.S. Department of State publication, A Responsible Press Office.)


. Do tell the truth - ALWAYS.

. Do be honest and accurate. Your credibility and reputation depend on it.

. Do admit it if you don`t know the answer to a question. Offer to get the answer, and do so as quickly as you can.

. Do correct mistakes immediately. State that you didn`t give an adequate answer, and you would like to clear up the confusion.

. Do avoid using jargon. Speak in plain language.

. Do assume that everything you say is on the record.

. Do be as open with the media as possible.

. Do call reporters if a story appears that is inaccurate. Politely point out what was wrong and substantiate it.

. Do keep a list of accomplishments. Update it frequently. Things happen so quickly that you may forget what you, the official, and your ministry or government have achieved.

. Do always return phone calls, or have an aide return the calls, in time for reporters to meet deadlines.

. Do try to get the information reporters want even if it means an extra effort, such as staying at work late or hand-delivering material.

. Do have a sense of humor.

"Frustration is almost built into the fabric of the job," says former vice presidential spokesman David Beckwith. "Unless you have a sense of humor, it is a grim business indeed."


. Don`t lie - EVER.

. Don`t say "No Comment" - EVER.

. Don`t improvise, don`t speculate, and don`t guess. Good reporters check facts. If you are wrong, your credibility will be destroyed.

. Don`t try to put a comment "off the record" after you have said it.

. Don`t be unresponsive.

. Don`t make news until you have in hand the information to go with it. Don`t make an announcement and then later prepare a press release and fact sheets. If you have the material prepared before a press conference, you can spend your time after an announcement explaining it to the press.


Dealing with Mistakes

If you are misquoted in a story or if misinformation is given, act promptly. Speak to the reporter. Don`t make threats. Have facts, and expect everything you say in correcting the mistake to be on the record. If you don`t get anywhere with the reporter, go to his or her editor.

You can ask for a retraction or correction of an error, and many officials do this. But others feel it only keeps the misinformation in the news by dredging it up again. With the Internet, however, incorrect news can be accessed in perpetuity. For this reason, requesting a correction is often the route to take. What you actually do depends on the mistake and its severity. But at a minimum, you should contact the reporter and correct the misinformation or misquotation.

Dealing with Bad News

. Don`t lie.

. Don`t cover up. If you lie or cover up, you lose your credibility.

. Don`t avoid reporters` phone calls.

. Acknowledge the problem.

. Explain how it is being corrected.


How do U.S. government departments handle the various press office functions? While every cabinet official can arrange the office to his or her specifications, the following paragraphs look at four arrangements.

Department of State: In the U.S. Department of State, the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs heads the department`s public affairs, media, and communications efforts. Under this office is the assistant secretary for public affairs, who speaks for the secretary of state and oversees five offices. These are:

. The press office, which daily prepares the background material, media guidance, and questions and answers that the assistant secretary uses to prepare for his or her daily press briefing.

. The office of media outreach, which schedules regional interview appointments within the United States with TV, radio, and print outlets for State Department officials.

. The office of public liaison and intergovernmental liaison, which arranges speaking engagements and meetings around the United States for State Department officials, handles liaison with state and local government officials, and sets up briefings in the department for visiting groups.

. The office of electronic information and broadcast services, which runs the department`s Web site and digital video conferencing. It also produces interactive television via satellite.

. The office of strategic communication planning, which coordinates other offices, both within and outside the department, around a certain strategic message.

Also reporting to the under secretary is an assistant secretary for education and cultural affairs, whose office oversees cultural and citizen exchanges and a coordinator of the Office of International Information Programs, which sends speakers overseas, puts out statements by U.S. officials, and produces publications and Web sites for overseas use.

Department of Defense: At the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the assistant secretary for public affairs is the senior public affairs official in the department and serves as the spokesperson for the secretary of defense. The spokesperson also manages several sections:

. Media relations, which responds to questions from the media. Desk officers in this section are subject-matter experts for issues with which the department deals on a regular basis.

. A planning section that is responsible for long-range communications efforts by topic and by region of the world.

. Community relations, which evaluates, coordinates, and approves requests for DoD cooperation in public events and community activities.

. Command information, which is an internal armed forces information service for military personnel.

Each section of the Defense Department and armed services has a similar structure, with a top spokesperson at the head and the subsection structure under him or her. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the president`s principal military adviser, for example, has a public affairs chief who oversees media relations, planning, community relations, and command information sections. While the public affairs chief is the official for whom they work, the section spokespersons also look to the public affairs office of the Defense secretary for guidance.

Department of the Treasury: At the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the assistant secretary for public affairs is the top communications official. He or she serves as the press secretary for the secretary of the treasury, manages the office, and prepares long-range communications strategy for the department. The assistant secretary also supervises an office of public education, which handles campaigns designed to inform the public about new occurrences.

A deputy assistant secretary for public affairs reports to the assistant secretary, speaks for the department`s deputy secretary, and backs up the assistant secretary. The third official in the office is the director of the office of public affairs, who manages press area specialists, the department`s photographers, and the personnel who prepare news clippings. The director also backs up the deputy assistant secretary. The director supervises four press officers, all dedicated to different policy areas under the department`s jurisdiction: international offices, enforcement offices, taxation and economic policy offices, and domestic financial offices.

Department of Education: At the U.S. Department of Education, a director of communications oversees news media relations, publications, internal and external communications, and public inquiries. The director is the long-term communications strategist and talks to the press only on rare occasions. Under the communications director is a press secretary, who speaks for the secretary of education and manages the press office. The press office operates on a beat system, with one media specialist dealing with the press on elementary and secondary education, another on vocational and adult education, another on special education, and so on. There is also a speechwriting unit and an office of public affairs managed by a deputy communications director.


Even though many journalists report on a daily or even hourly basis, they need time to research, interview, and write stories. They also like to know about news events in advance - a week or two ahead, at least - so they can approve a story idea with their editors, schedule a photographer, and do additional research.

When there is a breaking news story, such as a sudden political controversy or crisis, a reporter may have to cover the story with little background, making the task of writing a well-informed article harder. Consequently, the more information and research that can be made available to reporters the better. It also is important to learn the lead times and needs for each type of media. They vary a good deal.

Newspapers: Newspapers provide in-depth coverage of stories and can be good at reaching the public and those in decision-making positions. Newspaper reporters typically have "beats" or specialized areas on which they write, making them experts on certain issues such as economics or politics.

All reporters like detailed written documentation - facts, figures, anecdotes, graphics, and examples, such as press releases or media backgrounders - to bolster a story. The material needs to be able to be substantiated, and with sources given. Giving reporters written material such as quotes and fact sheets increases the likelihood that a quote or fact will be reported accurately.

Newspaper reporters answer to an editor who assigns stories and edits their writing. They operate on tight deadlines. Morning newspapers have late afternoon deadlines; afternoon newspapers have late morning and early afternoon deadlines. If a news conference is at 11 a.m., for example, and the news deadline is at 5 p.m., the intervening time would give morning newspaper reporters time to put together their stories, camera operators and photographers time to deliver their visuals, and editors time to edit for final production. Similarly, weekly newspapers have deadlines on certain days.

Newspapers run all types of news: hard news, features, profiles, analyses, editorials, opinion pieces (typically on the editorial pages), and letters to the editor. Other media have these types of news, too, but newspapers often have the broadest range of formats.

. Similarly there are different kinds of newspapers:

. National newspapers with broad interests and a definite national focus.

. Regional newspapers, which are focused on regional concerns.

. Local papers and weeklies, with a strong local focus.

Trade publications with specialized audiences, such as an energy newspaper for petroleum executives or a magazine for mothers of young children. Called "niche" publications, these include newspapers, magazines, and on-line sites for every kind of occupation, job specialty, leisure activity, and interest.

Newsletters: Newsletters are trade publications that can be in a magazine or a newspaper format. They are usually geared to very specialized audiences.

Wire Services: Wire services put out articles that are used by all media either for direct reprinting or for story ideas. A newspaper editor, for instance, might ask for a feature story with local interest after seeing a wire service hard-news story. The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence-France Presse are among the best known of the news services.

Magazines: Like newspapers, magazines range from those with a general news focus to very specialized publications covering, for example, economics or foreign affairs. Typically, magazine writers have more time to develop a story in depth than do newspaper reporters. Magazines often have editorial calendars mapping out topics they will cover throughout the year. These are useful to government and other public relations offices in developing story ideas around particular magazine issues.

Radio and TV: Radio and television carry a variety of programs - national shows, local or regional shows, straight news, human interest programs, talk shows, documentaries, and interview programs. Radio and television reporters and assignment editors often get their story ideas from newspapers and news wire services. Unlike newspaper reporters, some radio and television journalists, particularly at smaller stations, are more generalists than specialists on particular topics because of the wide variety of their assignments. TV reporters usually cannot report an issue in the depth of print reporters, and complex stories are often reduced to short news segments. TV is a visual medium, and reporters and assignment editors prefer stories that can be told with pictures. TV news deadlines are tight.

On-line news: On-line news is the newest medium. Like radio and television, news appearing on Internet Web sites has immediate dissemination, as well as offering - through talk radio shows, for example - the ability to have a two-way dialogue. There are all types of on-line news, from newspapers and magazines to chat rooms, plus e-mail to targeted audiences.

Given the varying deadlines of different media, a press official should be fair. That is, he or she should take the various deadlines into consideration and not always favor the deadline of one medium over another when scheduling events such as press conferences. Scheduling should also occur so that broadcasters can cover events and have time to produce their news segments.


Pictures, like words, tell a story. In using pictures:

. Decide what you want the photo to do.

. Draw what you are looking for as guidance.

. Take Polaroids of each shot or look through the camera`s viewfinder before the pictures are taken.


Speaking on the record is the preferred way to speak to the media. Since you want the information about your program, your idea, or your message to reach the public, why not have your name attached to it?

"The safest course of action is to assume that all you say to a reporter will end up in the newspaper, especially in the beginning before you know the reporters you are working with and are confident in who will accept the terms of the agreement," says former White House spokesperson Dee Dee Myers.

As you develop a relationship with a reporter, you learn to whom you can speak freely. "Then you can use `background` as a way to explain more complex subjects without having to risk being taken out of context," she says. "But in emerging democracies, where rules aren`t clear, you can get burned talking off the record."

The ground rules of how you are speaking MUST be established before you speak. Not afterwards. Here is what the terms mean.

. On the record. When you speak on the record, everything you say to a reporter may be used and attributed to you by name.

. On background. When you tell a journalist you are speaking on background, he or she may publish what you say but cannot attribute it to you by name or title. Rather, the reporter attributes your statements to a previously agreed upon identification, such as "a well-informed source" or "an expert" or "a government official."

. On deep background. When you establish before an interview that you are speaking only on deep background, a reporter may use the information but without giving any attribution. Anything said in the interview is usable but not in direct quotation and not for attribution.

. Off the record. When you speak off the record, you give a reporter information that is for his or her knowledge only and that cannot be used, printed, or made public in any way. A reporter should not take the information to another source in the hopes of getting official confirmation.

Sometimes, spokespersons use an off-the-record briefing to provide context for an issue when a reporter appears to be off the mark on a story and privacy laws prevent putting the information on the record. Knowing the background can give a fuller picture of the story.

"Getting a story killed can be an achievement," says one government spokesperson, "and it can lead reporters or editors to back off an inaccurate account they may be ready to publish. Sometimes, the best successes in this business are when you have precisely nothing to show for all your hard work and efforts. You killed a story that would have been wrong if it ran."


So you can quickly respond to breaking news and target your media when you have a story to tell, maintain up-to-date lists of media contacts.

. List the names of reporters, their affiliations, their beats or special interests, addresses at work and at home, cell phone numbers, beeper and fax numbers, and e-mail addresses. Also keep separate lists of reporters by beat or interest and by geographic region.

. Make sure the lists are kept up to date.

. Know how each contact wants to receive news - by fax, phone, e-mail.

. Know each reporter`s deadline and don`t call during deadline times.

. Find out who in the various media decides what news will be covered and at what time of the day, week, or month story decisions are made. Learn how far in advance of an event a media outlet wants to be notified.


Pool reporting is used when the site for an event or press conference is not large enough to accommodate all the reporters interested in covering a story. For example, in the United States, it is used frequently at the White House, where the space in the president`s office and other areas is limited.

Pool reporting involves representatives of each type of media "pooling together" to cover an event; they write a report on or tape the event and make their materials available to their colleagues in the press or broadcast media. The material is given to everyone at the same time, no one can use the material until everyone has it.

A typical "pool" consists of a wire service reporter, aprint reporter, a magazine reporter, a broadcast reporter, a camera person, a sound person, and a still photographer. Sometimes, it might involve just a single camera filming the event for transmission to reporters in a nearby room.

A "pool" can be even smaller. When President Bill Clinton attended a funeral at the U.S. Naval Academy, the size of the chapel and protocol for the event dictated the use of a pool report. One camera was allowed in the chapel. Reporters and other cameras were in the basement receiving a live transmission of the event, and they prepared their reports from the transmission.


Once you`ve decided on the "message" for an event, you should determine the best place to hold it to get across the message to the public. For example, if an event concerns an announcement about education, the best spot could be an educational setting such as a school. Once you`ve selected a school, consider the following:

. What is the best classroom for the event?

. Should older or younger children be involved?

. What visual picture do I want to present; what backdrop best achieves that and fits the message?

. Who else should be there to help develop the message? For example, are there teachers, school administrators, perhaps the minister of education, who should be included either as speakers or as guests? Decide when they should be invited, who should invite them, and what role, if any, they should play.


In the United States, when a top official such as a state governor, a cabinet member, and certainly the president and vice president participate in an event, they receive a briefing book in advance. This book is prepared by the staff of the person staging the event. The book is intended to maximize everyone`s participation...and to avoid surprises.

Typically, a briefing book addresses the following:

. The purpose of the event.

. The attire, or dress - casual, business, formal.

. The weather forecast for the day of the event.

. The size of the audience.

. Whether the press will be there. Whether cameras are expected.

. The location for the event.

. The name of the staff coordinator for the event, along with telephone, cell phone, and beeper numbers.

. The major political issues of concern in the area where the event is being held. The briefing book might include copies of supporting newspaper articles.

. The names of the participants, their titles and affiliations, and a summary of what they will be doing or saying at the event. Provide biographies if appropriate, along with correct pronunciations of names if they are unusual.

. A minute-by-minute agenda or schedule for the event.

. What questions are likely from the press or audience, along with possible answers.

. A list of issues to be addressed and those to be avoided.

. The names of any people the official should recognize from the podium.

. A diagram of the staging area, including where the official sits and stands, and next to whom.


Any national government agency in the United States - and most state, local, and regional agencies as well - can take their messages to the public via the World Wide Web. The media home pages of the principal federal departments might include a schedule or calendar for their key officials covering both home and satellite events; copies of news releases, speeches, and testimony; fact sheets and media advisories; photos and slides; special reports and publications; even a radio news broadcast service...all available from a single source.

To get an idea of the depth and breadth of coverage that the press offices of the United States` 14 cabinet departments offer on the Internet, check out one or more of the Web addresses listed below. You can also link to the on-line media offices of more than 60 specialized independent agencies and corporations of the U.S. government at

Department of Defense

Department of Education

Department of Energy

Department of Health and Human Services

Department of Housing and Urban Development

Department of Justice

Department of Labor

Department of State

Department of Transportation

Department of the Treasury

Department of Veterans Affairs

Source: U.S. Department of State