Taking Another Look at Our Media Relationships

The Education Writers Association (EWA) recently released the results of a survey of 190 journalist members of EWA entitled Mediated Access. The coverage of that study made communication professionals – they call them PIOs (a term less frequently used by NSPRA members these days) – look like obstacles rather than facilitators. One headline read Education Reporters Slam Public Information Officers in Survey.

But if you step back and analyze the report itself, I think it represents a realistic snapshot of the mixed-bag of media relationships today. Possibly, another case of headline writers not reading the full report.

Indeed, this “slamming” survey notes that the relationships between journalists and communication professionals were fairly positive nearly 75% of the time. The exception was for a small number of instances in which reporters were not given interviews on their time schedule or were refused interviews at all. In these cases, the districts were described as practicing censorship.

Another critical finding was that the public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers imposed by schools. About 76% of reporters agreed with that statement. That’s a head-scratcher for me because most NSPRA members practice transparency with an ounce or two of context tossed in to add clarification on any story.

Savvy NSPRA members know that if you’re trying to get to the ideal of having cooperation between reporters and school PR professionals, it all comes back to developing positive relationships on both sides. It goes south sometimes when school leaders feel ambushed or feel they were not treated fairly in the past. That’s when it gets more difficult to build a positive relationship and some barriers begin to impede cooperation.

One NSPRA member told me that the study was an embarrassment to our profession because she never barred any reporter in more than 20 years in our field. Another member noted that perhaps some of the current barrier issues reflect the fact that media standards are changing, particularly in big media markets and in those that are more sensational – this condition tends to be more prevalent on the East and West Coasts. She also added that she quickly learned that urban districts in sensational media markets face completely different media pressures and agendas, and may, at times, appropriately refuse an interview to a specific reporter based on that reporter’s past practices and ethics.

So there is another side to the “sorry-no-interview-for-you” story.

Other reactions to items in the study include:

Providing Access
Most communication professionals are there to provide access to reporters to complete their interviews. It is their job to help staff and reporters get together. One reporter commented, “Honestly, the worst schools to deal with are the small surrounding school districts with no PIO.”

Does it always happen on the reporter’s schedule? No, because teaching and keeping to school schedules are communication professionals’ main jobs, but, for the most part, we at NSPRA see that most communication professionals work quite well with their local reporters.

Monitoring Interviews
The study found that reporters do not seem to think that their interviews should be monitored in person, audited by phone, or even recorded. In media training, the first recommendation is normally to have your own video crew there when 60 Minutes comes knocking at your door. Neither side of the interview should fret about this process because it levels the playing field and establishes proof about what you said in case a story goes astray from what you actually said during the interview. It is called accountability for all parties in the interview. It is not designed to be an intimidating ploy, but rather is a stroke for accuracy and context in the final story.

Even the Newspaper Says, “No Comment”
And finally, this week The Washington Post did a story that its headquarters is possibly moving to a new building on K Street in Washington, D.C. The Post reporter covering the story noted “that the Post spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.”

So the Post spokesperson won’t even talk to the Post reporter on this story.

We assume that negotiations are still in play and no one wanted to harm those sensitive negotiations to influence the eventual outcome. Our experience shows us that school communicators face these sensitive issues with staff, students, and negotiations all the time. That’s why we understand that sometimes requests for interviews are more complicated than they seem.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

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