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March 29, 2004
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The H.R. Doctor Is In

Crushed in the "Whine" Press

Every elected and appointed official has the distinct pleasure - and sometimes it really is a pleasure - to deal with the press. It is as unavoidable as a summer cold or a rise in gasoline prices. Yet, the press is an institution that is critical to a viable, open, and diverse society.

Granted, the press has changed just like any other part of American society. There are fewer newspapers today just as there are fewer record companies, pay telephones, bank tellers and family farms. Technology has challenged the way the newspaper business functions and how it deals with its competing news outlets, such as radio, television, and the rising star of information conveyance - the Internet.

However, the community newspaper, even if it is owned by a worldwide conglomerate, is still a fixture on driveways and at front door steps all over the country. The average American adult, according to one recent media survey, spends 30 minutes per day reading the newspaper. While this is less significant when compared to about 256 minutes per day spent staring, in zombie-like fashion, at television, it still represents a formidable channel in our lives for receiving information. That same survey gauged the amount of time spent online at about 45 minutes per day.

Since the newspaper won’t go away, the least the HR Doctor can do is offer some tips derived from more than 30 years of experience dealing with members of the media, both as an HR Director and as a "reformed" county chief administrative officer.

The first tip is to recall the maxim that the role of the newspaper in a free society is to " comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Unfortunately, the "comfortable" has been identified with government. It seems to be the newspaper’s prime hobby to beat up government and spend many more gallons of ink pointing out the troubles, failures, ethical lapses, and other negative events than to devote space to the far more frequent, day-to-day successes that keep the society glued together.

With that in mind, understand that modern, competitive media will thrive on reporting the negative. That means public administrators need to maintain a constant awareness about the words they use, their expressions and their body language during an interview.

Another tip to bear in mind is that many members of the media apparently never learned to use a clock or watch, with one exception - an acute sense of the deadlines they have been given to produce a story. The top public administrators often see examples of this when the phone calls come at 10 p.m. or later in the evenings, on weekends, or during holidays. The calls may begin with, "I’m sorry to bother you ," but these words are only spoken after the "bothering" has already taken place. The HR Doctor recalls a colleague in California who was taking a shower when a reporter called. The director’s spouse said her husband was unavailable because he was in the shower. Guess what was in the newspaper the next day? Yes, the reporter was kind enough to discuss the bathing habits of the pubic official.

While we are on the subject of maxims, here is another one courtesy of Will Rogers, " never argue with a person who buys ink by the barrel." The idea here is that when an article appears and the reporter’s particular slant on the situation is annoying, incorrect or frustrating, rarely will a public official’s whining or attacks on the accuracy dysfunction of the reporter do anything more than generate additional stories with his or her name misspelled.

There are two exceptions. One is what occurs when a specific factual error in a story is reported. In these cases, newspapers are not at all shy about correcting such factual mistakes on page one, headline story. Unfortunately, your correction may be printed somewhere between the want ads and the obituaries.

The second exception reflects an increasing trend in journalism, ironically, the same trend which has sold so many newspapers in the past when journalists have applied the microscope to government. That is, the severe guilt complexes which result Ð for at least three issues of the newspaper Ð when questions of journalistic ethics or lack of ethics arise. Sometimes these lapses, such as those about willful errors, knowingly making inaccurate reports, etc., can lead to horrific consequences. These can occur even at venerable institutions such as the New York Times and the BBC. Such cases are rare, but they speak to the fact that reporters, editors, editorial boards, and their defense attorneys, may very well live in the same glass houses - or condominiums in Florida - that they attribute to the mere mortals who work for government.

On a more positive note, members of the press understand, even if they won’t acknowledge it in refined company, that they focus too much attention on negatives. This, in turn, produces a repressed desire to occasionally publish a "good government" story. This represents an opportunity for public officials to help inject into the blood of the newspaper on a given day information about positive things in the community.

This situation may explain the growing interest in the profession of "public information officer." Positive-story press releases, interviews, deliberate work highlighting programs that make a difference, and people in government whose daily work is a catalyst for good in society may actually end up in the paper. It’s okay to call the newspaper reporters and point out that an event is forthcoming, a person is being honored, or some exceptional service was rendered. The HR Doctor recommends calling the reporter very late at night at home, or on a holiday weekend.

Journalists are often very likely to come clean when you know them well enough to trust them to honor words like "off the record." If you want to provide story background, it is a worthwhile approach to establish right up front what "off the record" means to this reporter. This can be especially helpful if your relationship with this particular journalist is brand new.

You may think "off the record" means that the information is purely for background and will not be used in the story. However, the journalist may feel that "off the record" means something extremely different, such as using the information anyway, but attributing it to Kermit the Frog rather than to you.

Once you get to know a journalist and engage in conversations about their own hopes and fears, and their own careers, you will likely discover a very interesting phenomena - the journalist is a human being like you. Most feel they are underpaid and that their contribution to society is not recognized, certainly not by the editor. They will lament the decline of ethics, the increase in violence, the whining in society, just as you do. They will appreciate the role of government and they will know that the tremendous majority of public servants are honest and want to do the best job they can do. Then, when the last sip of Chardonnay at that dinner party is swallowed, the conversation will switch back to the need for an interview for tomorrow’s paper.

The HR Doctor went to a holiday party years ago given by a newspaper editor friend which was generally attended by reporters and their family. These were people who were wonderfully interesting, made great conversation, and had other talents like music, gardening and cooking. They had a cynicism about the world, which generally translated into a sense of humor and irony. They were very pleasant company.

If you want to escape journalists, stop being a public official. It’s the only way. If you can’t escape, then at least come to understand the motivation, the pressures, and the underlying needs that this unusual segment of humanity possesses. Despite the Jerry Springer Show style of American media, even the founding fathers recognized that our survival as a nation and the vibrancy of the public service depends on an active press. I know it’s hard to think of that when you have just read an article where your name was misspelled three different ways. However, try hard to put that behind you and remember that even Benjamin Franklin was a journalist.

So, renew your newspaper subscription! The paper still can be used to wrap fish or line litter boxes. Actually spend time reading it, but get your news from a variety of other sources as well, including the international press to see how others view our country. Next time you see a journalist, give the person a hug. However, if you do follow this advice, the HR Doctor accepts no responsibility for what comes out in the next day’s press.

All the best,

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor

PS - Not one thing in this article applies in any way whatsoever to County News - not one bit! Nothing! Nada!


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