If your campaign’s crisis management plan doesn’t include an effort to build a trusting relationship with the media, you need to revisit it.
Working with reporters you trust will repeatedly prove valuable for campaigns and communications professionals. Most importantly, journalists can become an important resource during a controversy or crisis that might otherwise engulf the unprepared.
But how do you build a relationship with reporters, especially on a short-term operation such as a campaign? To answer that question, I tapped my own 15-plus years of experience as a political reporter, as well as the expertise of a group of political operative friends.
Meet Early and Often, For No Particular Reason
During your planning phase, identify each beat reporter at all area media outlets and ask them to coffee. Keep these initial meetings casual, without an agenda, story pitch, or complaint.
Get to know the reporters, making mental notes about areas of shared interest to tap later. At the end of the meeting, provide your contact information (especially your cellphone number), as well as contact information for anybody else in the office who can help them. Continue to follow-up at reasonable intervals, even if it’s just to say, “Hey.”
Respond Immediately (And Don’t Play Favorites)
The best spokespeople return phone calls or emails as quickly as possible. They generally provide equal access and consistent information to every reporter who asks. On longer-range stories such as candidate profiles, they actively work to accommodate the reporter’s scheduling, as well as information and multimedia needs.
Aside from building trust through action, responding rapidly to every reporter often ensures that you maintain control of the timing of a developing story. Simply promising a response or scheduling a news conference can buy you precious hours, especially if the reporters know from experience that you deliver on your promises.
Alternatively, the non-response relied on by too many campaigns practically guarantees that at some point you will lose control of a story. This happened in 2010 when a GOP Senate candidate’s town hall suggestion that the federal budget be cut by 40 percent went from a blog post for an alternative weekly (written by me) to a national story that the campaign never controlled.
The kicker: I only attended the town hall to get quotes from the candidate after my interview requests went unanswered. Had the campaign engaged me early and responded quickly, I likely would have never gone to the town hall where he committed the unforced error.
Open Your Doors
For nearly a decade, the Utah Senate has hosted a daily media availability in the Senate president’s office. While only open to credentialed media who show up in-person, the briefing streams live, and the senators will sometimes take questions on social media from the general public. Senate Chief of Staff Rick Cantrell says the briefings create a comfort level between the press and politicians, whom he instructs to be honest and friendly.
The trust earned through these briefings has paid dividends when contentious issues arise. In the last session, for example, a joking exchange about transgendered people between a state representative and an intern on the Senate president’s Twitter account prompted an immediate backlash on social media.
Since it happened at about 10 a.m., reporters trusted that they would get a comment on it at the midday briefing. That meant they didn’t badger Cantrell for an immediate response, which gave him and the elected officials he works with two hours to prepare.
Before the briefing, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser had sorted out the issue and crafted an honest response. Additionally, Cantrell had reached out to members of the LGBT community and scheduled a sensitivity training session for interns and elected officials.
Without the trust built by Cantrell with reporters, the story likely would have moved much more quickly and lasted longer. Every year campaigns face similar crises, be it a social media foul or a flippant quote from the candidate.
In those cases, having the additional couple of hours that trust can buy could mean the difference between a one of local news blurb and an ongoing controversy.
Always Be Honest
If a reporter asks a question, answer honestly. Don’t belittle the reporter or try to spin the answer. Also, if you contact a reporter, state your motive honestly, whether it’s to complain, compliment, or just to say hello. Lying to a reporter, even once, will destroy every ounce of previously built goodwill.
Find Your Allies
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has a generally positive relationship with the media. It’s something that he nurtures regularly. He treats reporters fairly and doesn’t choose winners in the competitive world of breaking news. This has earned him widespread trust with media generally, but it has also helped him identify those reporters who can help him during a crisis.
That can include the beat reporter who he knows will nail the facts, but it also includes the talk show host who will gladly have him as a guest when he needs a public forum. Even if he doesn’t expect the host to agree with him, they share a mutual trust that will allow both sides a fair shake.
By having access to a forum — which he earns by building trust, not by bludgeoning the media into submission—the conversation seldom leaves Burbank’s home turf.
Hug a Reporter
As often as possible, compliment the reporters covering your campaign. Tell them something specific that you liked about an article, but don’t give false praise.
If you compliment them honestly, they will trust your judgment when you request a correction or clarification. They will also clarify other media reports, which can become especially important if your campaign draws national attention or becomes a target for opposing advocacy groups.
Reporters Are Not Your Friends
It’s an age-old adage, but it still holds true. As you build trust with reporters, you should recognize the professional nature of your relationship. You can ask them for guidance on handling a crisis, insights about unfamiliar reporters, or opportunities to state your side. But you should never ask them to violate their ethical code or give you favorable treatment because of your friendship, especially if you actually become good friends (it happens more often than many think).
Building trust can also open the door to important off-the-record conversations, which can benefit both sides when done correctly. (If you don’t know the correct protocol, don’t go off the record.) As for an actual friendship with a reporter, you should establish early on that non-professional gatherings will always remain off the record. If a reporter feels uncomfortable with that agreement, keep your interactions with them strictly professional, as in, no fantasy football leagues or after-hours drinks.
Think Like a Journalist
As you start to build relationships with reporters, do your best to walk in their shoes. Instead of assuming nefarious intentions if they publish something critical, consider their likely motivations. Accuracy and fairness matter, as does meeting a deadline.
Writing a compelling story matters, and a story compels with conflict. Going home at a reasonable hour matters. All of those things happen if the spokespeople respond quickly and honestly.
What almost never matters to a good journalist is whether your side or the other side wins. The next time you cry foul and claim reporter bias, consider the logic of the accusation. Better yet, tap your reporter friends for their professional insights.
Josh Loftin owns Route 89 Consulting in Salt Lake City, providing marketing and communications strategy. Prior to launching his own firm, he worked for 15-plus years as a political journalist with the Associated Press, daily newspapers and an alternative weekly.