Believe it or not, the media can be your friend, especially if you are trying to promote a new partnership project or community-based initiative, which involves reaching local people.
But we all know that a phone call from your local paper usually means they have heard about the latest “crisis” or “scandal” and want some answers.
Remember what annoys the media most is if you ignore them, or fail to return their calls. Journalists will almost certainly write their story anyway and you will come out looking worse if their article says you were contacted but unavailable for comment. Or worse still, if they quote the “other, aggrieved party” at length, completely unchallenged, even if this contains half-truths or even downright lies – because they gave you an opportunity to respond and you failed to do so. This causes even more damage.
When a journalist calls: top tips for social workers
BUY TIME Always try and buy some time, by taking the call, hearing their enquiry, asking them who they are, where they are from, what do they want to know, what is their deadline and who they have already spoken to? (The last question gives you a good indication of what line they are going to take).
MEET DEADLINES Tell journalists you will definitely get back to them as quickly as you can, well in advance of their deadline (which is usually later that day).
CALL BACK Even if you know about the issue, I would still advise you to buy some time, and call back later.
PREPARE Avoid doing the interview cold. Write down three things you want to say and back this up with a couple of key facts which show you in a good light (perhaps you were rated “excellent” by the Audit Commission recently, or are in the top 10 per cent of the UK according to league tables).
KEY MESSAGES Phone them back and try and answer their questions by using the three key messages you have prepared in advance. Try not to digress too much and finish the interview when you have exhausted your material.
IF NECESSARY, TALK GENERALLY If you feel you cannot say anything at all on a specific subject because of legal reasons, sub judice or confidentiality, remember you can still speak to the media. Explain that you can’t talk about this specific case for legal reasons, but you can talk generally about the subject, whether it’s your approach to, say, adoption or care leavers.
LOCAL PAPER The local paper will usually only need two or three lines from you, and at worst, you can send them a written statement via email. But as you get more confident try and speak to them directly.
LOCAL RADIO The local radio station will only require three minutes – if you are live – or one or two 20 second soundbites if you are pre-recorded. So your three key messages should hold you in good stead.
AVOID MURKY WATERS Above all, remember to stick to your three key messages and if you are being taken into murky waters, simply say, “You are asking me lots of very difficult questions and I am doing my best to answer. But on this occasion what we can say on the matter is…”
SAY WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY Always avoid direct answers to questions like, “Are you failing?” Because if you say “No” – the headline in the paper could be, “Council denies failure in adoption row”. Instead, think about your key messages and say, “I repeat, we have followed our procedures and guidelines to the best of our ability. We always have the best interests of our clients at heart and I am confident our actions on this occasion reflects this.”
UNSURE? If you don’t know the answer to a question, simply say, “Please can I get back to you on that?” Then find out what you need to know and call them back.
BE BRIEF Keep it short. Remember that you can end the interview at any time and don’t feel the need to fill the gap and ramble if the interviewer pauses. This is when you lose control.
Andrew Carapiet is a former BBC local government correspondent who now runs public sector specialists Media Friendly