Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Council Vs. Journalist

There are few things that get journalists angrier than Local Councils / Councillors (possibly the thought of having their pension changed just edges it) there is that 'heart sink' moment when you find out that you have to interview a local councillor because there is the immediate thought that they will be either slippery or dull.

Journalists don't like slippery or dull.

So what do I mean by 'slippery'?

It's more than avoiding the question, it's more than just putting the party line on an issue, it's even more than a terrible habit of using stupid phrases like 'increasing public involvement' or 'stakeholder awareness' it also covers a need to answer questions that they don't know the answer to... it's a need to be right, no matter what the cost.

Some of these difficulties can be ironed out quite easily with a greater sense of self awareness the last couple however have the potential to break any relationship that a councillor wants to build with a journalist or media outlet. No one wants to see or hear someone make stuff up on the spot but it happens with representatives of councils more than others. I'm talking with 16 years experience of interviewing councillors; there are some that have an inability to say "I don't know".

It's simple isn't it, just 3 words (including a contraction) that can be the difference between success and failure  Success in this case is trust. Why trust a representative and by extension an organisation that isn't telling the truth?

Trust is ephemeral and delicate and very easily killed.

When a councillor says 'I don't know' it needs to be followed with 'but I'll certainly find out.' and possibly even '...by the end of the programme' it shows that you're treating the audience as adults, that you trust them, that you know what you're doing.

The journalist will accept that as an answer but if you don't supply the answer later all hell will break loose.

Don't expect this to work every time; there is a danger of appearing ill informed and certainly don't expect it to work if you are, for example, Cabinet member with responsibility for council housing and you don't know how many houses there are... that's just incompetence.

The other big problem is the need to be right. All politicians suffer from this. It's all down to the adversarial nature of politics in this country. Very little gets done in partnership, things have to be argued out and not everyone can be right. Right is even a subjective word. You need to embrace 'wrong'.

There is a great fear of wrong as wrong implies fault. If you admit that you were wrong then is there a possibility of legal action? Will people think that I am incompetent? Will my career ever survive?

Sensible thoughts if you've broken the law, you're incompetent, or your career isn't worth having.

Being wrong doesn't automatically mean that you are weak, in modern media relations it's something that gives a public figure strength. It builds trust; you can trust someone who is honest with you.

In conclusion 'I don't know' and 'I was wrong' can be 2 of the most powerful and trust worthy things a councillor can say to a journalist. Don't forget, through the journalist you're saying it to the audience and after a string of denials from banks, government, utilities, corporations, they are really in the mood for some honesty.

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