It was disheartening to read an Associated Press story earlier this month that reported House Republicans are consulting with a lobbyist and former Anchorage television reporter on how to better communicate with the media.
The story reported the agreement with Jonathan White is valued at up to $5,000; House Democrats also were discussing receiving the same services, but as of Friday had not made any agreement.
Here's what's disheartening about that story. Just last month, Gov. Frank Murkowski delivered his state of the state address. In it, he talked about how hard work, sacrifice and new oil will be needed to cure the state's financial woes and jump start its economy. He talked about how state government will need to tighten its belt and rein in government spending for a smaller, smarter government. He talked about making the state's priorities education, transportation and public safety.
We missed the part about there being money in the budget to help legislators look good.
Granted, "up to $5,000" is only a drop in the state's coffers, no matter what it is used for, but still there's an important communications lesson here for legislators, namely:
Make sure your message is consistent. Don't "amen" the governor's speech and talk about about how the state needs to tighten its belt and then go spend money on something that clearly is not a necessity -- no matter how small the amount may seem. It makes it look as if you are above the sacrifice and belt tightening that apparently will be required of other Alaskans.
That's not to say communicating with the media -- which really is communicating with the public -- isn't important. It is.
And there's lots of advice -- much of it free -- out there on how to do it. The Internet is a good resource. Plenty of books have been written on the subject. There are lots of skilled people in the Legislature and throughout the state administration who also could give advice, and we suspect they would give it for nothing. There are groups like Toastmasters that help improve one's public-speaking skills. If lawmakers admire someone for how well they get their message out, they should ask them to share the secrets of their success over a cup of coffee.
Lawmakers who want to improve their communication with the media also could consult their hometown newspaper and radio and TV stations for assistance, because better communication with the media, or anyone else for that matter, is all about building relationships. Believe it or not, the media wants to have good communication with legislators, too.
To that end, we'll offer our tips on how legislators can better communicate with the media. And we won't send anyone a bill.
Don't lie. It will get you in trouble every time.
Listen before you speak. If you don't understand the question, say so. If you don't know the answer to the question, say you don't know. There's nothing wrong with saying "I don't know, but I will find the answer and get back to you." And then get back to the person in a timely manner.
Say what you mean and mean what you say. You don't want to be like others who, upon seeing their words in print, have said: "I know that's what I said, but it's not what I meant." Journalists may be many things; clairvoyant is not one of them.
Don't wait for a reporter, editor or news director to come to you, go to them if you have a story. Be prepared to answer: Why should Alaskans care about this issue? What does the issue mean to most people? If your idea doesn't pass the "who cares?" test, it likely will never be turned into a story.
Be conscious of a reporter's deadlines, especially if you want to be quoted on a particular issue. The wheels of government may turn ever so slowly, but those in the news business have to file stories daily. The presses don't run -- and the show doesn't go on -- at your convenience.
Don't say "no comment." It makes it sound as if you have something to hide. If you really can't answer the question, explain why you can't answer the question. And never call a news conference and then respond to questions with a "no comment."
Don't use jargon. Every industry and profession has a unique language, and government is no exception. Those in government seem particularly fond of an alphabet soup language that is foreign to most people. Drop the CBRs and PFDs and other shortcuts. It's confusing.
Speak in complete sentences. Often people don't get quoted because they're not very quotable. Sentence fragments and lots of "uhs" and "ahs" don't look good in print. Role play an interview with someone on your staff and videotape the interview to see how you measure up.
Don't be defensive. A reporter's job is not to take down your every word and put it in the paper or that day's newscast and make you look good. To get a better understanding of the issue, they may ask difficult questions and likely will talk to more than one source for the story.
Most of all, don't take things personally. Yes, mistakes will happen and when they do, they need to be corrected as soon as possible. But a mistake doesn't mean a reporter was out to get a legislator. We don't know of any journalist or news organization that has as its agenda making legislators look bad.
In the end, legislators and journalists have this in common: Their success depends on their credibility. And, in many cases, their credibility is determined by how well they work with one another.
It's really that simple. Too bad House Republicans didn't ask us before they spent the state's limited resources on what boils down to common sense. We hope House Democrats won't follow suit.
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