Engaging With The Media – Before Your Process

Today we continue our discussion on working with the media to help inform the public throughout a public engagement process. As noted in our prior post, the media can be a helpful partner, or it can be an obstacle in promoting productive discussion of policy issues.  There are a number of things you can do before an engagement process begins to help manage your interactions with the media.

  • You should, of course, plan for regular press releases or announcements.  When you announce the kick-off of the process it is helpful to have a basic timeline of key events, as well as a clear explanation of what you hope to accomplish with the process.  Let key members of the media know how and when you will be contacting them, and how they may contact you.  Offer to meet with members of the media about both the current and past processes (in your community and elsewhere) and how the media might work with you to ensure accurate, fair coverage.  Ask them what information they would like to receive.
  • Before starting, you should identify where the public is on  The Learning Curve, and what obstacles have been, or are likely to be, encountered in moving up the curve.  Identify some of the questions that will likely arise, and “hot issues” in the community that are likely to intersect with your process. If there has been a lack of or inaccurate information related to these issues in the past, discuss the new information that will be available or the types of data that will be developed and reviewed.
  • Identify possible resources who could provide useful information and input during the process.   Make connections with those resources and keep them informed as the process unfolds.  This will help you access those resources quickly if you need help down the road.
  • Identify and evaluate different media sources for their partnership potential.  Sources that are looking to develop, or are linked to, social media, and sources that try to cover subjects in depth and over time can be helpful partners.   For example, when Columbia’s visioning process was announced,  one local paper responded with an editorial stating “here we go again”, predicting that this was just another citizen engagement exercise that would result in  yet another report to sit on a shelf.  Not surprisingly, its coverage initially was sporadic and not very informative.  On the other hand, we developed a close working relationship with another paper which was launching a related electronic platform, The Missourian Watchword.  This platform included neighborhood e-news and a blog.  We were allowed to post surveys and drafts of the  Visioning Implementation Report on a dedicated page.   The reporters and editors had an understanding of what we were doing, why we were doing it, and what was coming next.  Some topics were covered in depth and related articles were linked.  This was a helpful resource for keeping the public informed.
  • Articulate some core “process” themes that will help protect your substantive messages.  Messages like “the process will be complex and will take time”, “all are welcome”, “we are focused on understanding”,  or “we are looking at ways to move forward as a community”,  apply to most engagement processes and help mitigate a premature media focus on “results” or “winners” and “losers”.  Stating that “participants should be prepared to share key concerns and interests and work with others”, will help you respond to and refocus future press reports that emphasize positions taken or demands made.   Other themes like, “each group has the responsibility over time to support their views with data and analyses”, or “we will evaluate the ideas provided and invite further comment on those evaluations,” will help make it clear that you will look at data and other facts in addition to opinions offered before decisions are made.  If there are core principles that will guide the process, they should also be identified and announced so that you can refer the press (and participants) back to them from time to time. If there are other boundaries to the discussion, such as controlling statutes or limited funds, it is helpful to identify those as well.
  • Finally, look at how your process will integrate with the rest of what local government is working on. You should be able to explain how citizen ideas and information generated during the process will (or won’t) connect with other work being done.   If, as is often the case, decisions will continue to be made on related issues while you are meeting with the public, acknowledge this upfront.  (“As we consider this issue, we know the City Council will continue to meet and make needed decisions on a case by case basis.   As our reports are completed, and recommendations made, they will be integrated into the decision-making process as follows {describe}. “)  This type of statement will help forestall reports as such decisions are made that citizens are being ignored, or that the process is useless.

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