Media Relations Specialists – The Canary in the Coal Mine

BLUF: If your organization doesn’t aggressively organize response-based information gathering and analysis efforts, you’ll lose the ability right out of the gate to accurately track the tempo and temperature of public and media interest, understand where best to direct your future communication efforts and focus your speaker preparation work.

In 1986, the practice of using canaries to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases in coal mines before they could injure miners came to a close. This tradition dated back to 1911. As I’ve previously addressed the roles of the Status Board and Fact Gathering Specialists and the vital role they fill in a Joint Information Center, let’s carry that canary analogy forward and focus on the third corner of the data collection triangle: the Media Relations Specialist, or MedRel, or “the nice people who answer the phones.”

MedRel is your first line of information defense and the floodgates to raw response data. Used properly, you’ll learn what you’re doing right, what you’ve done horribly wrong and where you need to go next. Aside from media availability events and on-camera interviews, it’s likely the only direct interaction members of the media or public will have with your incident management organization.

Therefore, you’ll need confident, competent and capable representatives to answer calls from local, national and, potentially, international media. They need to be able to relay complex, validated information (hint: approved talking points, news releases and fact sheets) without sounding like they’re reading it from a cue card.

The basic tenets of Incident Command System staffing apply: Assignment to the MedRel position should be done according to training, experience, skills and ability – not appointment by rank or employer. Previous (recent!) media experience is a must, as is being able to speak clearly and concisely. Also required are the abilities to accomplish tasks with minimal direction and function efficiently in a high-stress environment.

MedRel staffers also need to keep their wits about them if impassioned members of a community begin dumping their steaming hot concerns – founded or otherwise – directly into their laps. Remember: never take what may happen at critical incidents personally. When bad things happen, sometimes people need to pick up a phone or a keyboard and vent their frustrations on someone else. Stuff rolls downhill.

Part of the MedRel job involves reducing long, winding questions into simple task direction. This allows a Fact Gathering Specialist to head off in the right direction to get the right answer from the right person in an already busy Incident Command Post. As with any position in the JIC, the ability to forecast trends is a kind of magic.

The Importance of Information Coordination

I worked a response recently during which incoming media queries were being “sort of” tracked by two Responsible Party PIOs, working offsite and separately from one another. (I’ll call them A and B for simplicity.) Public complaints, meanwhile, were being shunted to an existing voicemail established for a separate, long-term issue and checked maybe every few hours. “We’re just too busy with other things.” Okay, fine. Stuff happens. But not only were A and B failing to catalog the media calls coming in *cough* using an ICS query record *cough*, they also weren’t comparing notes of who was calling, how frequently they were calling or even the topics of those conversations. As it turns out, one newspaper reporter was apparently calling both PIOs and framing her questions differently, which resulted in different answers.

A and B weren’t aware of the misrepresentation of their already weak messaging, or the impact of their differing replies. On the morning of Day Seven, I was handed a fact-sourced opinion piece written by the aforementioned reporter. “Well, here’s what this crazy person had to say,” said PIO A dismissively. Representatives of the RP congregating at the coffee pot prior to the morning Command and General Staff brief were quick to roll their eyes and launch ad hominem attacks against the reporter. They twisted the pronunciation of her name into a ham-handed insult and overly assured each other that the media was obviously the real enemy here. “We did everything we could. You just can’t please some people.”

Contrary to contemporary rumors, the media are not the enemy. There is no enemy here, with the exception of self-assured incompetence and poor communication. When you’re the PIO at a response, you’re doing your job and the media is doing theirs. It just so happens that their job is to report on what your company or agency is doing (or not doing) about the Bad Thing that happened.

It’s fair to say that you can’t please everyone: News stories will sometimes get written in advance. Your organization’s communication efforts may be undermined by a failure to address a long-standing complaint or some other such concern. Stuff happens. But there’s always more that you can do than what you can’t do. And if you aren’t willing to tell your organization’s side of the story, I promise you – someone else will, without the benefit of knowing all the facts.


Talk to me, Goose.

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