Interaction and Communication with Media

Requests from Reporters

The city of Huntington Beach is dedicated to creating and maintaining honest and quality communication with all members of the media. The goal of the Public Information Office is to assist members of the City Council and city departments with contacts with media representatives. The Community Relations Officer has daily contact with area reporters and editors, and is available to work with individual City Council Members and city departments to advise them on all aspects of working with the local, national and international media.

The city of Huntington Beach implemented a formalized Press Policy (Administrative Regulation 503), which detailed how Public Information works with the city organization to make sure important information about city-related issues can be disseminated to the mass media in a timely matter.

The city of Huntington Beach Communications Plan, dated July 2005, has been put in place. The plan includes City Council Adopted Goals and Objectives for the Public Information Office, direct and indirect methods of communicating with the public, marketing efforts, the city presence on the Internet, and other areas relating to communications.

Under the City's Media Relations Program, city staff members who are contacted by media representatives are to immediately contact the Public Information Office and indicate the name of the media representative that contacted them, the media organization they are representing, what the media representative wanted to know, and what city staff communicated to them. This information is communicated to Public Information Office by telephone, e-mail or written memo (Administrative Regulation 505). The goal of the program is to provide advance notice of any important stories - both positive and negative - relating to municipal government affairs before they appear in print or are broadcast over the airwaves. The information that is collected is shared with the City Administrator, City Council and City Department Heads.

The city of Huntington Beach is also committed to producing a number of publications that can be used as tools in communicating city activities to the public. Such publications include the city web site www.surfcity-hb.org, the Sands Magazine, Public Safety Awards program, and press releases. Also, the city's 24-hour-a-day government access television station, HBTV-3, keeps residents updated through the scrolling bulletin board and other interesting programs.

Overall, the city's communication efforts are directed toward keeping the public informed of City Council-adopted policies, city services, programs and projects.

How to Communicate with the Media

Introduction

Contact with the news media generally occurs in one of four ways:

Scheduled interviews
Telephone inquires
Unscheduled interviews
Written releases

How you respond to news media inquiries depends on what type of contact you have. During a scheduled interview, if you have time to prepare, you will be able to answer questions in greater detail than you would during an unscheduled one. Telephone inquiries do allow you some time to collect facts, since most reporters understand that you will need some time to find the facts. Make sure you call back, and try to do so within the reporter's deadline, but don't let yourself be pushed into answering questions when you don't have the facts. Feel free to tell the reporter you will call back when you've collected all the information you need to address their needs.

It is best to avoid unscheduled interviews. Try to avoid answering questions on the spot; give yourself time to think. If it's a situation such as a television news crew or radio reporter, it's best not to say "no comment." Rather, say something like, "I don't have enough information to be able to answer that question in detail" or "This issue is particularly sensitive and I'd prefer not to answer at the moment." In dealing with members of the print media, tell the reporter when you'll call back and stick to your promise.

Written media releases (also known as a "press" or "news release") offer the most control in getting news out on important subjects. It offers an elected official or municipality the chance to present facts in a clear and concise forum. A contact name should always be included with the release and that person should be prepared to answer more in-depth questions on issues relating to the media release.

Regardless of how the information is disseminated, whether in a live interview or a prepared, written statement, many of the same rules and guidelines apply. Be honest. Stick with the facts. Don't speculate.

Other Points to Consider

Know why you are doing the interview. If you don't have anything to say, or there is little to be gained, consider putting off the interview until you have something to say. You can always decline an interview.

It is always a good idea to learn something about the reporter interviewing you. Know his/her style and the type of questions he or she likes to ask. Ask the reporter what is the depth of his/her knowledge of the subject you are discussing. You may want to give the reporter some written information on the subject prior to the interview in an effort to not waste time on the basics. Remember, most reporters are generalists who cover a wide variety of topics.

Know the "ground rules" - The topic to be discussed should be defined before an interview is approved. If you agree on the areas ahead of time, the interview has a better chance to stay on track. Set time limits. You are a busy professional. You want to provide access to the reporter, but ensure that the reporter knows that you have other responsibilities too.

During an interview be yourself; relax. Be sincere. Be honest; tell the truth, even when it's embarrassing. You will maintain your credibility by doing so. Many elected and appointed officials have gotten into trouble in the past by distorting the truth or "changing" their story. Stick to the facts; never speculate or comment on matters beyond your responsibility.

Never say "no comment" - the reporter thinks this means you are guilty or hiding information. If you can't discuss something, explain why and suggest other topics about which you can talk.

Don't go "off the record" - If it can't be said "on the record," it's best not to say it at all. You must be prepared to read anything you say to a reporter in the newspaper.

Treat all questions seriously - There are no "dumb" questions. There are no simple "yes" or "no" questions.

After the interview, thank the reporter for his/her interest. And remember, a reporter is usually not allowed to show you a copy of his/her story before it's published, so tape the interview if you wish to have an exact record of what you said. You can also ask the reporter to read back the quote they wrote down for you. They may or may not agree to read it back, but it can't hurt to ask.

Related Resource Material:

1. AR 503 - Press Policy
2. AR 505 - Media Contact Advisory Notification
3. League of California Cities - Guide to Public Records Act