Friday, September 21, 2012

Media from the Inside: We Look Like What?

I have scanty experience in public relations. I did three months as a P.R. intern for the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, but all I did was write and edit press releases. I never so much as smelled a member of the print or online media, unless it was a whiff of myself; I've been writing for high school, college and local online newspapers/magazines for the last five or six years, but regardless of the outlet, I've always been the guy asking the questions. On Friday, I was really and truly on the inside for the first time. I was preparing to be the guy that gets interviewed, not the guy who does the interviewing, and it's actually a hell of a culture shock going from one to the other.

The Center for Domestic Preparedness's curriculum has ten different units, one of which is talking to the media. We covered that one earlier this afternoon. The message was simple: say your piece and shut up. Talk about your Americorps service until you're blue in the face, talk about those parts of FEMA about which you can speak with authority (mine would be Community Relations, since that's my specialist role), but for heaven's sake "stay in your lane" when it comes to FEMA. Don't speculate. Don't talk about things you aren't an expert in. Don't give people false hope by speaking on topics you know nothing about. Just smile politely, get their name and the name of their media outlet, and go do your job away from the cameras.

There are plenty of reasons why this makes sense. As Summit V was told, we are the face of FEMA; as CR Specialists, we will be the first FEMA representatives that anybody sees. If we get on local TV or radio or in the newspaper, our job is to get the word out about what FEMA does, what Americorps does, and what we can do for the people in any affected area. Why? Because it helps people to have good and accurate information. Getting the good word out early could save lives. And, let's be honest, coming off well with the media also helps our bottom line. People meeting, liking and trusting FEMA Corps members means FEMA has an easier time with the disaster relief effort and improves FEMA's reputation in a given community, and Americorps members being popular improves Americorps's chances of not getting cut out of the federal budget.

This is all positive and good. But let me say my piece about being a member of the media. When you read professional journalists writing about why it's important to have a class of professional journalists, things get a bit self-righteous. We're the watchdogs, we say. We're the guys who keep government honest and ferret out corruption; we're the eyes and the ears of the general public, for whom we work. We're the unofficial fourth branch of American politics. But from inside a government organization, the media is... not exactly the enemy, but more like an extremely shifty ally that has to be watched every minute. Some helpful tips from our handy interview notecard include "do not get lured into a friendly conversation", "do not be overtly defensive or sarcastic", "stay on message and avoid traps" and "do not apologize or attack". There are plenty of innocuous tips in there, but those make it sound like I'll be fighting reporters for control of the FEMA message. That is startling, to say the least.

I'm not saying I buy the idea that journalism is a quasi-holy duty that has to be fulfilled for American politics to work, but I do generally think that we--journalists "we"--are out there doing good work on behalf of the public. I've done a lot of interviews in the past few years; I've interviewed local businessmen, basketball coaches, professors, college administrative staff, board members of nonprofit organizations, lawyers, doctors, even representatives of a member of Congress. Never once have I asked a "gotcha" question, tried to sucker someone into an answer, set a conversational trap or failed to identify myself as a journalist in a timely fashion. Yes, I have asked tough questions; that's part of the job. Yes, I have tried to identify interesting or juicy things that could make a story. That is also part of the job. But the crap I listed a couple of sentences ago, as far as I'm concerned, is bush league. It's not something you do if you want to be taken seriously.

We seem to be preparing as if all journalists operated in such a scuzzy fashion, and from a planning standpoint, it makes sense to prepare for the worst; local news, especially local newsmen that have been bitten by the self-righteous bug, certainly do that sometimes. But the majority of journalists I have known and learned from do not behave in such an amateurish manner, nor do I. If this is how journalists look from inside FEMA, then I'm disappointed in the quality of journalism that FEMA has interacted with. We're not the enemy. We're trying to help.

Ideally, the journalists I end up interacting with (if any) will be more in line with my idealistic definition (I'm young, I can be that) than FEMA's more pessimistic one. If they don't, I'll certainly be glad of the preparation; hell, I'm glad of it now, just so I know what might be coming. But if they act like professionals and ask good questions, I'll give good answers (or refer them to the people who have said answers if said answers aren't in my lane, FEMA overlords), I won't be disappointed. I'll be ecstatic. That's how this is supposed to work.

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