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Surviving the Media Madness

Quick Tips for Good Media Relations

Quick Tips for Good Media Relations

Martha Boden knows all about bad publicity. About a year before Boden was named executive director at the Humane Society of Indianapolis, the shelter was the subject of “Destined to Die,” a three-day investigative report published in the Indianapolis Star.

Reporters had spent months conducting interviews and gathering data, but “no one had a clue the series would be negative until it actually came out,” Boden recalls. “It turned out to be the typical ‘dead dogs in barrels’ kind of story. The board was knocked flat. There were bomb and death threats.”

Six months later, another damaging blow: an exposé accusing the executive director of financial wrongdoing. Though Boden says the charges were unfounded, the effect was devastating. The director stepped down. The board president quit. “The shelter was slapped up one side and down the other. Everyone was in a state of shock.”

As the new executive director, Boden knew exactly what she needed to do next. “I had to try to build bridges with the press,” she says. “I gave the Starfirst crack at interviewing me even before I was on the job; I saw it as a chance to build a relationship.”

Because Boden takes a proactive approach to working with the media—initiating story ideas instead of reacting to headlines— she is less concerned about another sneak attack. “I tried to show our local media partners, by responding quickly and as openly as possible, that I understood they were just trying to do their jobs, too,” she says. “I think that openness and cooperation resulted in more balanced stories.”

Building a positive relationship with the media may sound intimidating, but it’s easier than undoing the damage of bad publicity. Here are some basic tips for connecting with your local media and handling a crisis should one arise:

Make PR a priority.“Every animal welfare organization should have an active public relations and communications committee that’s always working on the communications plan,” says Jody Huckaby, executive director of the Washington Humane Society in Washington, D.C. Like Boden, Huckaby has faced a major media onslaught. In his case, it happened during thorny contract negotiations with the District.

His shelter ultimately survived the negotiations as well as the media blitz because PR is a clear priority at Washington Humane. “Our communications group is a standing committee, as important as the finance committee. By establishing it at the board level, we sent a message that public relations is critical to the success of our organization.”

With the help of board members, staff, and volunteers, a communications committee can create a thoughtfully articulated media strategy and follow it faithfully.

Your shelter’s communications plan might include these points:

  1. Identify key editors and reporters in the community.
  2. Call and invite them to tour the shelter. (Have no fear. Reporters are people too.)
  3. Have coffee with reporters three times a year to update them on shelter goals and progress. (Most reporters like coffee.)
  4. Aim for one positive animal story every month to keep the shelter in the news—in a good way.
  5. Work with the local newspaper to develop a weekly column featuring adoptable pets; you provide the pictures and captions. See if a radio station would be willing to do a weekly interview with the shelter manager.
  6. If the budget allows, hire a media consultant to work with the executive director or anyone else likely to serve as spokesperson. Or ask a media-savvy volunteer for a crash course in handling the media.

Use press releases judiciously. A press release—basically, an announcement on shelter letterhead that’s mailed, faxed, or e-mailed to the media—can be an efficient way to get the word out, especially when you’re sending special event information to community calendar editors.

But press releases have drawbacks. Too many creates a kind of white noise; reporters may stop paying attention. They’re also impersonal. If you’re serious about getting media coverage for an important announcement, pick up the phone. “A press release just doesn’t cut it,” says Jeffrey Terp, president of The Milhous Group, the Indianapolis-based PR and marketing firm Martha Boden consulted for help. “A reporter gets a hundred a day. Why would they pick yours over someone else’s? You wouldn’t send a friend important information in writing; you’d call. The same goes for editors.”

Focus on heartstring-tuggers, not numbers. Even when your statistics are something to crow about, reporters will always prefer a human interest story. Boden found that out the hard way. “At the end of the year we sent home a record number of animals—5,600. We were so excited, we thought we’d call the paper and tell them. We spent three hours with the reporter, gave him an exclusive. Then the story comes out, but it’s not about our great numbers, it’s about euthanasia.”

Boden quickly realized that statistics aren’t nearly as compelling to reporters as happy people/pet tales. “We should have gone to him with three adopters. We should have introduced him to three of the 5,600 animals who went home that year. We gave him statistics when we should have given him stories.”

Shelters are full of compelling stories: Stray dog reunited with owner after nine years. Abandoned cat finds new life in nursing home. Animal control officers bust puppy mill; forty chihuahuas now homeless. Cat left for dead gives birth to six kittens. If you or your staff don’t have time to contact the press with these story ideas, find a willing volunteer or board member you can trust to do the job well.

Be a resource. Position your organization as the media’s one-stop resource for great animal information. As you cultivate relationships with editors and writers, let them know you’ve got experts on pet care, behavior, wildlife rehabilitation, bite prevention—whatever your group can offer. Also point the media in the direction of regional groups or national organizations that might be able to help with animal-related issues—by providing statistics and context to back up what you’re saying.

Encourage reporters to call on you when they’re writing about any animal-related issue—whether it’s something directly tied to the shelter (adoption trends, for instance) or something that may initially seem to the reporter to be only tangentially related (the popularity of reptiles as pets). By being accessible and providing email addresses and phone numbers of key players in the organization who are designated media spokespeople, you can work your organization’s name—and messages—into all sorts of stories. “This is how you establish credibility with the press,” notes Huckaby. “And if something bad should happen, you have people you can call on who already have a history with you.”

Draw up a crisis response plan before crisis strikes. If the very idea of a crisis plan is too scary to contemplate, consider taking a workshop in crisis communications, suggests Eve Holt, a public relations professional who worked most recently as the director of communications for the Hawaiian Humane Society in Honolulu. “If you never need these skills, that’s fine. You’ll learn things you can apply to other situations, like how to handle yourself during an interview.”

Holt’s crisis communications skills came in handy when a local group launched a series of lawsuits and public criticisms against the shelter, accusing employees of, among other things, inhumane euthanasia practices. Holt’s training in crisis communications made it possible to counter the charges in a poised and professional way. Later research showed that the community’s trust in the organization hadn’t been negatively affected by the bad press.

Key Elements of a Crisis Plan

Evaluate your own situation. Before you cry foul on the media and rush out immediately to combat a negative story, examine the state of your organization and the allegations being leveled against you. Is there any truth to the charges? Are there things you could be doing to get your house in better order? Taking a thoughtful approach to criticism, provided that at least a nugget of it is constructive, will help you not only improve your operations but regain public respect and media trust.

Assign one point person. Designate a single spokesperson, usually the executive director. “We were very clear with the staff that my office would be the only point of contact with the press,” says Huckaby, whose organization was besieged with calls from the Washington Post, Fox News, and other major media. “Everybody was getting phone calls. Sometimes people were caught off-guard, particularly volunteers,” he says. “But we were fortunate. People got the message early on that only the executive director would speak to the media. As a result, we had absolutely no issues with staff or volunteers talking to the press.”

Stay calm.It won’t always be easy, but it’s critical to maintain composure, says Holt. Sound and fury will only make you and your organization look worse. Count to ten, meditate, swim a couple of laps—do whatever you need to do to center yourself before an interview.

Speak the truth. Owning up to a mistake is one of the most important ways to gain the trust of a reporter. If something bad has happened, don’t try to cover it up or make excuses; instead, admit the problem and then outline the actions you’re taking to correct the situation or prevent it from occurring again. “I’m amazed at the number of people who try to skirt the truth,” says Terp. “If you try to play spinmaster or answer with ‘No comment,’ ... the reporter isn’t going to trust you.’ ” You’re also likely to raise suspicions that lead to negative reporting.

If you truly don’t know the answer to a reporter’s question, say so—but tell the reporter you will find out and return the call, or tell him you will find someone who can speak to the issue.

Stay on message.“We stuck to two points and two points only,” says Huckaby. One of his points related to contractual details while the other focused on how contractual constraints would ultimately affect the well-being of sheltered animals. “We stayed on those messages in every single interview.”

Consult an attorney. Holt’s group worked closely with an attorney to explore legal options and to ensure that the shelter’s public responses to allegations were always appropriate. In truly egregious situations involving unfounded attacks, it’s critical to take a methodical approach to countering the negative publicity—by soliciting legal advice and making sure senior management works closely with public relations professionals and lawyers to craft a positive response.

Sometimes the mere presence of a lawyer can be useful in persuading less responsible media outlets to be more conscientious about their stories. “If an article is libelous, or if the reporter had the facts but chose to misconstrue them, it may be appropriate to go to the editor with your lawyer,” says Terp. But, he adds, it rarely helps to threaten a lawsuit: “They won’t care, and no shelter has the budget to take on the media.”

See the press as your partner. Nearly two years after she first started at the Humane Society of Indianapolis, Martha Boden is determined to preserve the bridges she carefully built when she first took the helm. “We have to treat the media as our partners, an important part of our organization,” she says. “I think of them as people who are just trying to do their jobs. If I can get back to them quickly, and be accurate and succinct and friendly, that helps.”

Debra Kent is a freelance writer who volunteers for the Bloomington Animal Shelter in Indiana.

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