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All star PR: today's savvy legislative public information officers are taking advantage of new technology to get their messages out to the media and the public.

Phone-feed days are behind Bruce Smith, and he doesn't miss them.

Just a few years ago, if the Kentucky legislature's radio news director had a soundbite to offer stations, he'd have to send it over the telephone. The quality was bad; the clips weren't always used.

Three years ago, Smith's office started posting CD-quality interviews and audio news releases on the Web. His track record has improved. "Now more stations use our stuff," he says.

For Morehead State Public Radio, situated 100 miles from the capital, the new technology means citizens get their legislative news fast enough to try to affect the final vote, says news director Charles Compton.

"I can call Bruce up and say, 'Any chance you could get me something on Rocky Atkins talking about the transportation budget?'" Compton relates. "He can get the tape, put it on his Web site, and I have it by afternoon. ... I'd much rather have my own reporter there, but if you don't have one..."

Compton says things happen so quickly during session that the faster a radio station can get information, the better. "Sometimes things happen that certain constituents aren't going to like," he says. "If we can get the information to them, maybe we can make a difference. Timeliness is everything."

NEWER AND FASTER

Across America, modern reporters and press secretaries are finding new ways to use technology to better educate the public.

Information has never been more accessible or easier to distribute. Communications professionals are taking advantage of it.

Like Kentucky, more chambers than ever are stepping up their audio offerings. Today, reporters can watch the Webcast of a committee meeting to clarify a quote. From their newsrooms, they can download video of a local senator's press conference and air it that evening. They can sign up to receive electronic notices about a particular bill. Or they can view searchable tables of all their representatives' votes since 1999.

"Technology has made government more open than it's ever been before. Things are faster and more accurate," says Darby Patterson, editor of Government Technology magazine. "Digital systems are changing the face of democracy."

NEWS BY E-MAIL

If you're a reporter in Minnesota, you can sign yourself up for inbox information overload. The House of Representatives alone offers free subscriptions to more than 100 mailing lists. And that's a good thing, journalists say.

Each member, committee and caucus has a list. You can sign up for the Session Daily or Session Weekly newsmagazines, fiscal analyses and other reports. Though stacks of e-mail can overwhelm, reporters say they'd rather be alerted to certain information than have to remember to keep tabs on it.

Robert Leger, immediate past president of the Society of Professional Journalists and editorial page editor of the News-Leader in Springfield, Mo., is on a weekly update list in his state. He's a fan of a little section at the bottom of the newsletter--the list of bills that passed during the week. "That's where I find the real nuggets." Leger says. "I'm looking for that oddball bill that didn't get much discussion."

Chambers in at least 11 states allow reporters (and the general public) to put themselves on mailing lists to receive press releases, newsletters, high-resolution photos, soundbites or, in some cases, entire reports. Web site users can "subscribe" to a bill in chambers in 15 states, meaning the legislature will send them an e-mail when the bill moves.

Though many of these subscription services are helpful to major metropolitan daily papers and news stations, they can be indispensable to smaller outlets that don't have a full-time staff at the Capitol. Mike Sunseri is the photo director in Kentucky. His job is to capture on camera what newspapers are missing because they don't send a reporter to the Capitol. Included in his state's electronic news alerts are links to downloadable high-resolution photographs.

The weeklies, he says, "gobble up our stuff like candy." The same is true in Alaska, where the Republicans send out the daily Legislative E-News, with news release snippets and links to their full text, as well as audio releases and other helpful links.

"Alaska is a very big state geographically," says Ken Erickson, majority Webmaster there. "E-mail is an ideal way to connect to reporters. A lot of them in smaller communities don't have the manpower to send a person to Juneau. Occasionally they use our stuff verbatim."

Sunseri likes to think of Kentucky's legislative press office as a wire service, with a mission to give the media and the general public better, faster access to knowledge. "It's as much a civic education mission as it is for legislative information," Sunseri says.

EDUCATING THE MEDIA

Any effort to better educate the media is an effort to better educate the public.

Louisiana, for one, has made its legislative proceedings easy for reporters to understand. It doesn't take much. The state simply gives journalists access to the same computers the members have in front of them during session. When a bill is being discussed, a link to it pops onto the screen, so with one click, everyone has a clear grasp of the subject at hand.

"They're really helpful," says Chris Frink, a capitol bureau reporter at the Baton Rouge Advocate. "You can follow exactly what's going on at any moment. You know exactly what an amendment says."

Although this access is helpful to reporters at the Capitol, other states have chosen ways that work in newsrooms miles away.

New Hampshire's prominent voting record link was never aimed at reporters, says Speaker Gene Chandler. But they've welcomed it, he says. Users easily see on the site a list of how every legislator voted on every bill. Some papers run their representatives' entire records. In most other states, reporters have to pull up every bill and tally the votes.

Chandler says New Hampshire's method, which a few other states also use, may make it easier for "special interests to twist things around," but adds that it also helps the public and reporters see the whole picture. "We're a citizen legislature, and we pride ourselves on being responsive to the public."

A MATTER OF RECORD

States didn't start Webcasting their chamber debates or committee meetings so reporters could cover them without being there. As with the voting record links, Web-casts and their archives were originally, and are still primarily, aimed at the public. But reporters find them useful tools.

"There's six of us in the office, and there's always 15 things going on," says Frink, the reporter from Louisiana. "We use it when we need to go back and look at something again or clean up a quote."

Internet audio or video feeds are available from at least 69 of the 99 legislative chambers today. Most states that Webcast offer audio or video of just their chambers. Some go beyond.

The Texas House and Senate offer eight audio/visual channels with committee meetings, press conferences and chamber debate. In Ohio, you can search the archives of Web-casts by bill number, legislator or event.

Posting video or audio of House and Senate negotiations on the Internet is a relatively new approach to disseminating information that states started taking in the late 1990s. For many years, though, they have offered gavel-to-gavel coverage on public television or cable stations. Today, at least 28 still provide this raw footage.

Many states, however, have refined their video offerings--producing shows and sending out video news releases by satellite. For example, the caucuses in Pennsylvania each have their own video staff, so there are two crews in each chamber. John Dille, assistant supervisor of House Republican Video, says their program took root more than a decade ago with "one guy and a camcorder." Now, there's a team of 13 who send 60-to 90-second spots to TV stations, which regularly use them.

"They'll send us things on important legislative issues," says Jody Gill, assignment editor at WTAJ in Altoona. "They obviously let you know what side they're coming from. If both sides send us stuff, we tie the two together."

Gill also appreciated some of the state's other high-tech abilities during the last session. The caucus hooked a senator up in its studio and the WTAJ anchor was able to interview him shortly after a hearing on the state budget. "It gave us immediacy," Gill says.

ONE-MAN SHOW

Not all caucuses have a staff of 13. In Iowa, Democratic Caucus Research Analyst Rusty Martin is a self-described "one-man production shop." Martin has acquired the equipment and know-how to distribute video news releases using the Internet. A camera, software, extra memory, lights, a tripod and a curtain backdrop put him in business. To make the releases, Martin records an event or a statement, digitizes it, edits it on his desktop machine, posts it on his Web site, then sends a notice to stations.

"It's good enough quality, and if it's their senator, it's really good," says Martin, who serves on the board of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Legislative Information and Communications Staff Section.

KTIV News Channel 4 agrees. During the 2003 session, the channel used footage from a release about a local legislator who sponsored a bill to improve rights for National Guard members being called to duty in Iraq. "That was one of the first [Web video releases] we used," says Jon Beringer, chief photographer. "It was newsworthy. We could air it that night. This was the only way we could get it." Beringer's station is a 3.S-hour drive from the Capitol.

NEWS SPEAK

Whether they're aimed at reporters or citizens, these new practices share a philosophy: Speak the language of the news. Successful communications staffers are using the tools of the press--digital recorders, cameras, editing software and the Internet--to get their messages into the media and the minds of constituents, says Richard Vain, a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government in Folsom, Calif.

By using the media's means, Varn says, "you can increase the likelihood of it being used."

And in this time of diminishing government news and dwindling statehouse press corps, legislators and legislative staff should do all they can to make the public and media care about policy news, says Carl Fillichio, vice president of the Council for Excellence in Government. His group released a report this past summer that shows a sharp decline in government news over the past 20 years. Fillichio suggests that the government--and not just its spokespeople--must take part in turning this trend around.

"Everyone has to start thinking about how they can be a better source. How they can better tell their stories."

Nicole Casal Moore works with reporters and press secretaries through, NCSL's Public Affairs program.

RELATED ARTICLE: News about government declines.

Network and newspaper coverage of the federal government has declined 29 percent in the past two decades, according to a report, "Government: In and Out of the News," from the Council for Excellence in Government.

Though researchers did not track state government coverage, other reports have detected diminished statehouse press corps. A spokesman for the council says the results would hold true across all levels of government.

"I think it's a very broad trend," says Vice President Carl Fillichio. "The federal government is a microcosm of all government."

The study includes examination of more than 400 hours of airtime on ABC, CBS and NBC, and more than 13,000 front pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Austin American-Statesman, the Des Moines Register, the St. Petersburg Times and the San Jose Mercury-News during the first year of the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations. Not only did they discover a dearth of government coverage, they noted executive branch favoritism and a lack of local and state officials' viewpoints, among other findings.

The study did find that the use of regular people as sources has grown over the past 20 years. But very rarely were state and local officials quoted in national government stories. They accounted for less than 1 percent of sources in television segments and in print articles combined.

The study found that news outlets criticize more often than they praise, and they slip more judgment into news stories than they did 20 years ago.

"The news media has to strike the right balance between facts, analysis and opinion," says Fillichio, who stresses that his group is not a media watchdog.

"It's important to remember that television and newspapers are our civics teachers," Fillichio says. "Learning doesn't stop after fifth grade. It's a lifetime process. The news media have a role to play, but the public has a role in demanding to know more. Everybody needs to be a part of the conversation." Government communicators, too, can help bring policy news back to the forefront, Fillichio maintains.

Government isn't as sexy as "Beniffer," Fillichio says. But it's more interesting than many make it out to be. "There are amazing things going on. The process is amazing. Maybe government needs to open up its doors more and let reporters see the process, let them see how ideas percolate."

--Emily Kropf, NCSL
COPYRIGHT 2004 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Author:Moore, Nicole Casal
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1U6KY
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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