Step up to the mic

When it comes to working with the news media and engaging the public, the bottom line is relationships are key.

WYFF-TV and City of Greer taping safety segments
WYFF-TV and the City of Greer teamed up on short
segments offering safety tips. Photo: City of Greer.

That was one of the points that speakers made at the "One of Many Hats" workshop the Municipal Association hosted jointly with the South Carolina Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. The one-day workshop focused on building skills for city staff who have communications responsibilities as a part of their job.

Media relationships
Cultivating a mutually respectful relationship with the news media before any tragedy strikes is a big part of having a productive relationship, said Paul Vance, former lieutenant with the Connecticut State Police, who served as the sole police spokesman in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.

"Existing media relationships meant a high level of trust between local law enforcement and reporters immediately following the shootings," he told about 50 workshop attendees.

Vance described several incidents during the weeks following the shootings when having trusting relationships with the media paid off. This was especially true in ensuring the privacy of the victims' families.

He said that one of his top priorities in working with the media after the shootings was to make sure nothing happened or was said that could cause additional pain to the families. Because reporters already trusted him and the information he was sharing, they were more inclined to respect his requests about staying away from the grieving families, he said.

Vance said he approached building media relationships by treating reporters as if they were customers.

"When the press calls, you help, and that's what I told my staff to do," he said.

Engaging residents
Relationships are also central to engaging and involving residents in what's going on in the community, according to Lauren Sims, executive program manager for the Town of Mount Pleasant. The town has found success with several outreach programs to engage residents.

"Our research showed our top outreach job should be letting people be heard."

Town staff put together a multipronged strategy to get elected officials and staff out into the community engaging small groups at a time.

"We found people were more willing to talk honestly and engage when they were in a small group outside of city hall," Lauren said. "This kind of engagement leads to ongoing relationships between city officials and residents, and that's a win-win" in a city that's one of the fastest growing in the country.

The town's approach included gatherings that involved having coffee with the mayor, the town administrator's e-brief and mobile office hours, roundtable meetings with neighborhood and community groups, reading patrol with police officers, and a planning college that teaches the public and people in businesses dealing with planning about the details of this city function. Mount Pleasant has won three municipal Achievement Awards for these outreach programs.

Make the case to the media
"Give me something with a 'wow' factor," said Andy Shain, Columbia bureau chief with the Post and Courier, when asked about how to make press releases compelling. "Don't tell me how many widgets your company is producing — Tell me how the widgets are making life better."

He also said having a good relationship with reporters can help get your release picked up or your story covered. Reporters and communicators both have a job to do. Understanding that humanizes the exchange.

"Plus, the 24-hour news cycle means PR people and reporters have to work together," Shain said.

He also gave his insights about the future of traditional newspapers. He said we could see a future when the Sunday edition of a newspaper might look more like a news magazine that you would read over the course of a week.

"Maybe you'd see a three-days-a-week print edition with seven-days-a-week online coverage," he said.

Good relationships and FOIA requests
Relationships also come into play when responding to Freedom of Information requests submitted by members the public, including members of the media.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, and Tiger Wells, the Association's lobbyist who works on FOIA legislation, agreed that some newly enacted provisions of the law give requesters and the government entity more guidance and, in some ways, more flexibility in responding to requests.

"Both parties can work together to come to an agreement about when documents will be made available," Wells said.

Rogers agreed — "Having an established relationship with reporters who are making requests can always help."

An official campaign
The City of Greer partnered with WYFF-TV in Greenville to offer safety tips to residents about the "100 deadly days of summer," a period when teen drivers have a higher rate of automobile-crash fatalities.

Lt. Randle Ballenger with the Greer Police Department explained how this initial partnership with the television station resulted in an ongoing relationship with the station.

The initial four-part series continued as WYFF's "4 Your Safety" with more than 40 segments. The series covered an array of topics, including the importance of yielding the right of way while driving, how to spray a fire extinguisher and how to clean out a lint trap in a dryer to prevent fires. While the Greer Police Department received positive feedback, WYFF's viewers also began calling and emailing with segment ideas.

WYFF also shared stories on Facebook Live, garnering thousands of views. The results? Labor Day passed with zero traffic deaths in the city. And the city has the added benefit gaining a positive relationship with the television station.