Decades ago, the editor in chief of “D” (Dallas) Magazine, who now holds the same title at the Compass (talk about a career stall), answered the phone at his desk. He regretted it immediately.
On the other end was a woman from Chicago who identified herself as an “account executive” with a public relations agency who wanted to share with the editor a marvelous new product her client was about to introduce into the marketplace.
The product, she explained, was not actually a hot dog but the “skin” of the hot dog – nutritious, tasty … actually revolutionary.
Having heard about enough, the editor asked the caller if he might ask her a personal question. After a long pause, she said, sure, go ahead. The conversation went like this:
“May I ask how old you are?”
“Twenty-four,” she replied.
The editor responded, “What are you doing with your life?”
(She explained she was going to college at nights, was studying law, and planned to get out of her career of flacking hot dog skins as fast as was humanly possible.)
Why this tale, why now?
Over the years it has become clear to us that few in government – or in the private sector, for that matter – know how to communicate with the media, or get their story (at least their side of the story) before the public.
What CEOs, Cabinet ministers, agency chieftains or department heads most often do is hire “intermediaries,” aka, public relations specialists, press secretaries, communications officers and so on. In some instances, entire departments, such as Government Information Services, act as buffers between the principals and the press.
There is a cost to this. Hired “proxies” carry a heavy burden with the working press, which views them as “bought and paid for.” Consequently, their messages are highly discounted, if not totally ignored.
If this editorial needs a sharper point, it is this: Those in positions of authority need never interject spokespeople between themselves and the media. Professional journalists far prefer to “deal direct” with those actually in authority – the higher up the better.
In truth, a number of top officials in government, despite having legions of public relations intermediaries at their disposal, regularly call Compass reporters, editors or the publisher directly when they have a serious message they want to disseminate, or a major error in an already published story they want to correct.
We welcome those phone calls.
In many instances, of course, we reach out directly to our leaders and among those most receptive to our calls are Premier Alden McLaughlin, Speaker of the House McKeeva Bush, Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell, Acting Governor Franz Manderson, as well as some of their colleagues. Even MLA Ezzard Miller, who represents the district of North Side and is not known to be a fan of the Compass, is easily reachable and always courteous in our conversations.
Many government officials, however, who should be communicating regularly with the media, are totally incommunicado – off the grid. They do not return calls or emails and appear to be cocooning or hiding. They are doing themselves and the populace a disservice.
Does open conversation ensure that officials will get “favorable coverage” in the Compass going forward? Of course not, but no one ever asks for that. The goal we all seek is accurate and fair coverage, informed by the facts. Nevertheless, frequent conversations with our leaders have additional real value.
A relationship of trust becomes possible, and that is always important – not just in journalism but in any form of meaningful communication.