Don’t become the story.
I’m pretty sure they taught this in Public Relations 101. It’s common sense to any professional who works behind the scenes with press.
As someone who spent several years in the Minnesota House as a press secretary and now helps clients navigate press relationships with K2, I have been sitting back with some popcorn, watching an absolute fiasco unfold over the last week between a House DFL comms staffer and the Capitol press corps.
In short, the comms staffer failed the first rule of PR: he became the story.
I won’t recount every back and forth of this still unfolding drama (and highly encourage you to enjoy the news stories and Twitter threads on it if you haven’t been keeping track), but a quick summary is this:
The House DFL held a press conference on a bill earlier this session, and their comms staffer said that there would only be one more question near the end of the presser. A MinnPost political reporter pushed back and said no, there would be many more questions as reporters strive to understand the bill. After that press conference, the comms staffer berated the reporter in a heated exchange resulting in the reporter being taken off their official press mail lists for a time. Somehow this back and forth rose to being considered discrimination and harassment, and DFL leadership reported it to HR and the Sergeant at Arms. Journalists cried foul at what they saw as stifling the freedom of press and threatening reporters, leading media organizations to unite behind a letter condemning the whole debacle.
When did politicians and comms staffers lose their common sense? In politics, it’s critical that you maintain quality, professional relationship with press, while also understanding there will be back and forth and some tension at times. Reporters aren’t always our friends, but they are a key part of our political system. You can push back and be strong, without throwing a temper tantrum.
What would I have done in that situation as a press secretary if I said, ‘one more question’ and reporters tried to ask several more? I would have shut it down and talked to the reporter after that legislators’ time is limited, but he is free to submit additional questions to me that I could try and answer. Easy peasy. Plus, if it’s a friendly reporter – which I would argue MinnPost often is to the DFL – maybe you put him in front of the bill author later for a few more questions to ensure he feels heard? Either way, you manage that relationship in a smart way.
Watching this unfold, it’s even more fascinating that instead of taking a step back and letting things cool down, the comms staffer seems to be doubling down on silly behavior at a time when all reporters are watching him. He is DMing reporters on social media and demanding apologies for what he views as slights.
I regularly advise clients when they may need to lay low from press for a while as part of crisis communications. To all my fellow PR professionals – remember crisis communications tactics apply to you too. Think before you act. Now we’re watching Speaker Hortman issue non-apology apologies as the DFL House tries to “rebuild” its relationship with the media.
So what should we take away from this still unfolding melodrama as PR professionals? Here are a few key things to remember:
- Learn how to build and maintain relationships with reporters. Most of them are decent people – it’s not that hard.
- Keep your cool and protect your professional reputation. If you’re the one who can remain level headed in a confrontational situation, you will come out ahead. Heated tempers, name calling, and threats will only make things worse.
- Understand that you have an agenda and reporters have an agenda, and those agendas are not always in line. Figure out how to navigate that – especially in politics.
- If you are in a crisis comms situation, doubling down on bad behavior will only fuel the flame.
- In a crisis, sometimes the best thing to do is lie low for a while. Definitely don’t pick more fights with reporters when you’re in the center of a scandal.
- Use this story as a reminder to NEVER BECOME THE STORY.
In the meantime, as we digest these lessons, I will have my popcorn ready for whatever this melodrama brings next.