Playing “Hard to Get” with the Media

I love the media.

I love the media in a sentimental way.  My first career choice was in television production which lead to my really long career in the world of television news.  It was an extremely tough job and not for the faint of heart.  Deadlines were constant, demanding.  You had to get a show on every few hours, every day.  If you didn’t, there was a huge black hole, literally and figuratively in terms of lost ad dollars.  Slow news days were the toughest, because it was challenging to find compelling content when it felt like the world had dried up on the information front.

My relationship with the media is much different now.  I do consider them friends, and I respect the job they have to do.  The most important part of journalism is holding the powerful accountable.  I may not like the stories that they cover, but they have a tough job, and their job is to report news no matter how negative it may be.

Mel Serow and I both share this high regard for our journalist friends, and we sympathize with the dramatic shifts that have occurred in the news business in the past few years.  To state that there has been a major paradigm shift in the media is a huge understatement.  The entire model has been flipped over, inverted, and then stomped on and chewed up, only to be spit back out as something that is barely recognizable and almost unprofitable.

Being on the other side now, I do think that I can take a more global view of the role of the press and the role of the PR professional.  Even when I must stick with talking points and official statements, I understand when journalists press for more information.  Sometimes I’m disappointed when they don’t ask me tougher questions and merely accept my standard lines verbatim.  A job of a journalist is to ask questions on behalf of their viewers/readers/listeners and when they don’t, they are doing their constituents a grave disservice.

Recently, we had an event where we held back the details of a press conference to ensure better media coverage. On the surface, this can appear as business as usual, but I am not sure it was the right call in the end. The news was certainly important for the campus–it was the announcement of the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement.  However, it is a story that is difficult to tell in the news media of today.  Knowing that truth, we staged the press conference as an important announcement.  Sure enough, there was great attendance by media, the campus, and the public.  In the end, the media coverage was miniscule.  Yes, it was great to have all the cameras and reporters at the event, but in the end, the coverage did not amount to much.  I do know that if we had explained what the event was about, we would not have had the attendance of many of the media that were present.  It’s just how it goes, and it is a reality we have to deal with when it comes to the academia concept of big news and the media’s concept of big news.  It’s just downright different.

So, I returned to my near-constant state of self-reflection. Was it the right decision to withhold the nature of the press conference until the moment of the announcement?  Will this mean in the future that if we truly have something even larger in scope to announce we will be greeted by skepticism, or worse, indifference?  I worry that this move may have had short-term success but long-term ramifications.

Whenever we can, we try to work with the media to meet their deadlines, giving them information that we can or deep background to help them understand the context of a story.  As a representative of a public institution, I believe wholeheartedly in transparency and forthrightness.  That has been our brand in media relations at UM-Flint, and it is one that must be maintained.

I am interested in what others think of how we handled the announcement.  If you have a thought, comment here or shoot me an email. Public/Media Relations is a never-ending part of our job, and we are always looking to improve our service to the campus of the University of Michigan-Flint.

Jen Hogan