Meeting the media.
Be honest. Be prepared. Sound like the Boy Scouts? It's media relations.
Associations and the media have a delicate albeit symbiotic relationship, panelists said during ASAE's Summit on Associations and the Media, held May 21, 1998, at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. On one hand, associations are important sources of information for the press: For example, Red Cavaney, CAE, summit co-chair and president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute, citing research done by ASAE, said that in one week, USA Today referred to associations on 259 separate occasions. On the other hand, Douglas O'Brien, news anchor for WINS-AM in New York City and ABC Radio Networks, said, "As soon as I call [an association], my crap detector goes off."
Moderator James Fallows, then the editor of U.S. News & World Report, and a commentator for National Public Radio, wrapped up the message of the summit. He said success with media depends on preparation, rapport, and truth. "Above all, we need to be credible," he said, referring to associations and the news media.
"We rely heavily on associations," said Lockwood Phillips, publisher, Carteret County (North Carolina) News-Times, and vice president, National Newspaper Association. "It's important that associations utilize our services in an honest and forthright fashion. . . . It's important that associations become aggressive - with facts."
The importance of building relationships
O'Brien and Phillips discussed the importance of a respectful, nonadversarial relationship with the media. "Every single media inquiry is a sales opportunity," O'Brien said. "Media is not your audience - it's the conduit to your audience."
As W. Henson Moore, president and CEO, American Forest and Paper Association, Washington, D.C., emphasized: "Media is the way to get the message to the American people." He pointed out that the press and the association community operate under the same part of the Constitution: "The same amendment covers freedom of speech and the right to petition government."
The panel also noted that the single, "make or break" story for the association is just one of many stories for the reporter. What associations need to do, the panelists agreed, is to establish working relationships with the press - before there's an issue to discuss.
Phillips said, "Don't hesitate to talk to the media. We are ignorant. Associations represent a source of information and expertise." He added that by the time a reporter has a story, he or she is on deadline, and without previous knowledge of the issues involved, will have to catch up quickly.
Taking the discussion of the relationship between associations and the media a bit further, Fred Grandy, president and chief executive officer of Goodwill Industries International, Bethesda, Maryland, zeroed in on the issue of credibility. He called media training a growth area and said that it can add to a lack of credibility for the association as well as the media. "It's worth saying: Training to answer questions is a growth area and a business," said the former member of Congress. "My concern is that . . . we evade the issues. We're so good at 'answer-bridge-flag' that the public feels as if [associations and the press] are in it together, and the public is left in the dark. How do you get back to simple answers to difficult questions?"
John B. Cox, CAE, executive director, American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, Alexandria, Virginia, stressed the importance of being accessible to the press. "I can't believe how many people in our industry court the media and then aren't there [when the media need them]," he said.
But as important as accessibility is, Cox does not want to provide answers that are not complete. "If I have the story, you'll get it," he said. "I know you have a deadline, but I have to answer to people [i.e., the public] who want the truth," he said.
Steve Geimann, senior editor, Communications Daily, and immediate past president of the Society of Professional Journalists, also touched on this, noting that technology has greatly increased the wealth of information available to the press. "Just because we can go there doesn't mean we should go there - stories have to be allowed to cook," he said.
Some parallels to politics
Having former members of Congress Grandy and Patricia Schroeder on the panel allowed for comparing the association community to the political world.
"Associations and politicians have the same problem visa vis image with the press," said Schroeder, who is now president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, Washington, D.C. She noted that associations and politicians both fight a perception by the press that their primary mission is self-interest.
Grandy recalled that during his time in Congress, he experienced associations as groups that would sometimes provide information, but more often would come in to ask for help. "We have to prove we are stewards of the public trust," he said. "Those of us in human services organizations have a responsibility to promote what we do, and with that comes the accountability of our mission."
Susan Bitter Smith, CAE, executive director, Arizona Cable Telecommunications Association, Phoenix, said, "The press doesn't understand the relationships between state and national associations. Many things happen on a state level that may impact nationally. It may be a more visible impact on the state level. There's a parallel to Congress: Congress's activities are in the District of Columbia, but what members really care about is what happens in their districts." Phillips concurred: "All issues are local."
Schroeder said she still refers back to the media lessons she learned while in Congress: "Rule One: Don't lie. Rule Two: Don't do anything you don't want on the front page. If you break Rule Two, see Rule One." In other words, keep your credibility in good shape.
O'Brien stressed the importance of an association's commitment to communication. He pointed out that too few associations have a working public relations committee or a public relations professional sitting at the board table. "You need to have a cogent, clear, institutional-wide communications policy - a sustaining communications philosophy - from the boardroom down," argued O'Brien. "Humans are the only creatures that can communicate and breed at will. They do neither thoughtfully," he said. "Listen carefully to staff. Build a communication philosophy. Then, you will know in advance whether information [you provide] will be good for the media."
Kate Achelpohl is manager of public relations for Vision Council of America, Arlington, Virginia.