How to create a media communication policy

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Interacting with the media is always a case of risk versus reward. Every company, non profit organisation, and government entity should therefore have a dynamic Media Communication Policy that is aligned with its strategic objectives, sets out who should say what to the media and is continually updated.

 

Managing Risk areas

When dealing with the media, risk areas include situations such as spokesperson’s comments being taken out of context, factual errors in published articles, negative speculation after a “no comment” statement or a spokesperson not being available for comment. Another risk area is journalists asking spokespeople to comment about recent market speculation or press articles about their organisation or a competitor.

An effective media policy should anticipate risk areas such as these and include a strategy that will equip anyone dealing with the media to handle these. This will mean getting input from these people to ensure their requirements are covered.

To safeguard the company to the greatest extent, a Media Communication Policy should be applied at all levels of the business from top management down to the people on the switchboard and not just stuck away in an archive in the hope that someone will refer to it.

The guidelines in the media policy should be clearly stated and enforced to ensure journalists and other media interviewers are treated appropriately if they phone in, and prevent employees from inadvertently giving away information to the media. Journalists have been known to use social engineering tactics like befriending receptionists, switchboard operators and other operational level employees to part with information.

A Behavioural Blueprint for Media Interaction

With the right content a media policy can provide a behavioural blueprint to ensure spokespeople are broadcasting consistent messages and do not cross certain boundaries and that the organisation is speaking with one voice. It will also safeguard against a spokesperson operating in one division making controversial comments about the biggest customer or potential customer of another division.

For example, a spokesperson makes a negative statement about government to a journalist and meanwhile another division has a major government tender pending, or the organisation is relying on the support of the government in some way.

Without strict guidelines spokespeople can also be guilty of voicing personal opinions in interviews, which are totally out of line with the company’s views.

A well thought out media policy will give spokespeople more confidence in knowing what they can and cannot say. It will also allow them to avoid answering controversial questions without alienating the journalist.

A good response when confronted with sensitive questions, or questions that the spokesperson is not empowered to answer is to refer to corporate policy. For example, “The corporate policy of our organisation is not to speak about what the government should or should not be doing,” or “I would love to talk to you about that Bill, but it is corporate policy not to disclose that type of information.”

Another tactic is to refer the media interviewer to the spokesperson who has been designated to answer the type of question that has come up. For example: “I am afraid our corporate policy dictates that our CEO is the only one permitted to speak on that subject.”

Making statements like these is better than saying “no comment”, which is like slamming the door in the journalist’s face, and it moves the responsibility to a corporate level without jeopardising the spokesperson’s relationship with the journalist.

Media Policy Check List

To get staff to read the policy document, keep it as to the point as possible and include a bullet pointed check list of guidelines for example regarding:

    • Who is permitted to speak to the media about what.
    • What an individual should say if confronted unexpectedly by a journalist and they are not an appointed spokesperson.
    • Sensitive or controversial questions that are likely to come up in interviews (which should be regularly updated).
    • Exactly what to say when sensitive questions come up.
    • Rules for non-media facing staff such as those on reception.
    • Any rumours going on in the market about the organisation and how to deal with questions if they come up.
    • A prerequisite for spokespeople to undergo media training.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance business and technology journalist with 25 years experience, and she writes regularly for Business Day. She also runs media training and writing skills workshops, and is the author of A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing and distributing effective press releases. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter or email her at jennigay@icon.co.za for more information about her training or her book.


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