Guide to COSA Project Development
13. WORKING WITH THE MEDIA
In this chapter the term "media" is plural. The term "the news media" refers to all of the different means of disseminating and publicizing information of concern to the community: i.e. radio, television, cable networks, as well as the Internet, and Print. Since the various news media act as a community's major source of information and as a community's voice on issues of interest, it is important that a COSA organization take media relations seriously.
The media are a COSA vehicle to the community. COSA members should always treat them with courtesy and with respect; this includes returning calls, respecting deadlines, and always being willing to assist.
In the collective experience of COSA in Canada, it is considered unwise for a core member to appear before the media, or to give interviews. Perhaps the best approach is for the COSA volunteers to deal with media request for interviews on behalf of the core member.
The mission of a COSA is of critical interest to its community. Sex offenders have victimized a community, and some residents fear these offenders more than any other. Many will view a sex offender as a threat from outside, even though this type of offender has always been in their midst, perhaps even in their own families.
Members of a community have a right to know if someone who represents danger proposes to return and live among them. Police rely on the media to "get the message out" in the form of public notifications about offenders posing the greatest risk to a community.
However, an offender's right to privacy and safety exists alongside a community's right to information. The ultimate goal of police and COSA volunteers is that there be no more victims. Achieving this means balancing the safety needs of both the community and the offender. A COSAs' paramount purpose should be to emphasize the need for this balance in any message that goes to the community.
A valuable resource could be members of the Citizens' Advisory Committee. One of their goals is to "develop and implement means to enhance communication with the local community". Some CAC members will be skilled in dealing with the media and provide a valuable supportive presence especially when in critical times.
B. The News Media are in Business
The news business is a competitive industry. Journalists are not in the business of getting your message across exactly as you might want. Furthermore, journalists tend to work in a top-down chain of command. This means a particular reporter, even one sympathetic to the COSA mission, may not be able to control the sort of "play" a story gets. For instance, editors or news managers may want to give a story a different emphasis or "spin." Reporters seldom, if ever, write their own headlines.
Remember: nothing is ever "off the record." Many people get into trouble when the microphones have been turned off and the cameras apparently shut down by saying things they thought were not being recorded. When the interview is over, walk away and say no more.
C. Shaping Stories
The news media have the ability to shape opinions in a community. For instance, as is true of all information, news is frequently reported from a particular point of view. Responsible reporters will offer a balanced "point of view" that includes both sides of a story. For instance, a balanced news story would report the details related to a threat to public safety as well as information around precautions taken to protect public safety in light of those dangers. "Spinning" a story happens when certain information is reported in a sensational or biased way, or when certain parts of a story are emphasized at the expense of other parts.
For instance, a newspaper published the following headlines in a daily sequence while covering the release of a core member:
- "Perv Out of Jail Today: Police Consider Publishing His New Address"
- "Pervert a Risk: Harris"
- "Pedophile 'Terrified' to Be Out of Jail"
- "A Community Lives in Fear"
- "Perv's Neighbours in Scary, Ugly Mood"
- "Neighbours Drive Perv From Home: Etobicoke Residents Issued"
- "Molester 24-Hour Ultimatum"
- "Neighbours: We've Done Our Jobs"
Some news sources report an event in a way that can sway public opinion and perhaps, even motivate some communities to undertake a particular course of action. Unfortunately, driving people from one community to another usually serves to -increase the probabilities of that person re-offending rather than decrease them.
However, a story is not just an action undertaken by the media. When those who work with COSA want the public to know about their activities, they want the most positive aspects of their work to be broadcast. They, too, will want to "spin" a story and influence public opinion so that it complements their point of view.
A good journalist who may be interested in telling the COSA story will want to tell "the other side" of that story as well. To be responsible in their profession, journalists will seek to give voice to those who may disagree with the COSA point of view, or illustrate the dangers some sex offenders present to the community, even when there is a COSA.
When speaking with journalists, COSA volunteers, LPC's and others should be aware of journalists' responsibilities to their profession, which include "journaling" all points of view that will most accurately chronicle the public record.
While preparing to work with released sex offenders, it may be helpful for a COSA to contact a media consultant or media educator to provide education in how best to relate to the media.
Becoming aware of local media sources and getting to know members of the local media is the first step in having a good working relationship with the media. As with most activities, forming good relationships is a key component of success.
D. Be Prepared - Know the Mission Statement
When making contact with news media, COSA volunteers should memorize the Mission Statement and be able to explain it in their own words. When a volunteer is in doubt about how to answer a question and when pressed for more information than he/she may want to give, returning to the Mission Statement is the safest response.
E. Designated Spokesperson
Establishing good working relationships with community news media is a function of the COSA. One person should be designated as the spokesperson for the group. This person should not speak to the media unless the COSA has agreed to a strategy.
F. "I've Been Misquoted"!
It is crucial that the spokesperson understand the importance of clear and concise communication. Thinking aloud, "wool gathering," or talking "of the cuff" inevitably results in bad publicity. Speculation is unwise. When communicating with media sources, keep the following points in mind:
- Have one or two key "bullet" points to make. Don't try to cover all the historical data or sum up the past five years in one interview. If only six seconds are alloteed, make them count!;
- Use plain language. Speak with energy and passion (and for television, keep hands and arms still);
- Make your selected key points compelling and non repetitive;
- The public must be able to relate to the story; this happens best when the speaker can link the points to every day life;
- Selected points should add to people's understanding;
- Be honest and acknowledge danger when it is present;
- Never stray from established key points, and always loop back to them when speaking.
Many media interviews will follow the following three stages:
Never agree to an immediate interview. Ask what the timeline for the interview is and offer to call back after checking some facts or obtaining permission to give the interview, etc. If pressed to give the interview immediately, consider NOT giving the interview. For many radio and television interviews, the producer or another staff person will schedule a pre-interview with you. Take the opportunity to ask what the story is, what angle is being pursued, whether one or more people will be interviewed, who the others are, what their backgrounds are, or if others will be asked to call in or comment on the subject. Decide whether the suggested format is in the interests of the core member, the COSA and/or the community.
Even though there may have been a pre-interview, few reporters will tell what their actual questions will be. Interviews are designed to seem spontaneous. The person doing the pre-interview is seldom the person who will actually be conducting the interview "on air."
The speaker should take time to collect his/her thoughts in advance to select the key "bullet" points that will form the basis of what he/she is trying to communicate. Rehearse them with another volunteer. Try to anticipate what questions will be asked.
At the end of the pre-interview, one needs to decide whether or not to continue with the actual interview. The decision is made in the knowledge that by now one is already "on the record" as "having said" whatever you have said in the pre-interview.
Be certain that the interviewer correctly identifies the speaker. For example: Mr. Jones is a volunteer with the Willowbrook Circle of Support and Accountability rather than Mr. Jones is a self-described expert - a preacher, a former school, teacher, a factory worker, etc. - working with sexual "predators" in this area. Stop the interviewer if the information is wrong.
The spokesperson should try to relax and "be yourself." Remember that the message is important and people want to hear it.
If on television, look at the interviewer directly, not at the camera, your hands or other things in the studio. Speak to the reporter, and focus on having a conversation with this one person.
If in a radio studio, do the same things: focus on the interviewer and not the microphone. In fact, forget the microphone. Let the technicians worry about the sound; they'll provide prompts as needed.
Speak in brief, short sentences. Do not ramble, "think out loud" or offer more information than asked for in the question. The fewer words you use, the less likely your ideas will be taken out of context or be misquoted. Remember to return to your own key points as often as you can. Use common, lay-person's language (think about how you might speak to a 10 year-old).
Be honest. If unable to answer a question, say so.
Be positive; do not to buy into any negativity whenever possible. Consider the following example.
"Mr. Jones, how do you explain the fact that all sex offenders re-offend?"
"That's not true. All sex offenders do not re-offend."
In this example, the respondent sounds defensive. It would be preferable to say something like, "With COSA, core members rarely re-offend; our community is safer as a result."
This statement is positive, focuses on COSA (not all sex offenders work with COSA, you are now talking only about the people you are able to speak about with some authority about), and you have focused on community safety (which might be one of your key points).
Make the interview "issue-driven" like community safety rather than "question-driven." Question-driven interviews give the interviewer too much latitude and control.
If asked to speak about the details of a core member's life or criminal past, remember that all information including information about the Covenant remains within the COSA. Unless the core member has agreed to the release of specific information, or allows a COSA spokesperson to confirm information that is already in the public realm, one cannot speak about him or divulge details of his private life. Stay with the issues and away from private details.
Use personal stories and anecdotes to highlight key points. Be relaxed, self-assured. Use appropriate humour and present yourself in a positive light. Remember that you know more about the topic than the interviewer. Be sincere and do not hesitate to show your concern for an issue. However, limit your passion so as not sound over-zealous and biased.
It is appropriate to ask when an article will appear or when an interview will be broadcast. Sometimes breaking stories will "bump" yours to another time slot or date. If the interview was live, you should arrange to have someone tape the interview as the reporters' station will not likely make a tape for you, though you could ask.
If you liked the article or interview, be sure to contact the producer or the reporter and offer your compliments as well as your willingness to be interviewed again on similar stories.
If you were not entirely satisfied, do not overreact. Remember that public news stories will not likely be as comprehensive and as detailed as you might like. In the written news, the story that appears is not often the exact story a reporter has written. Sometimes even reporters are unhappy with what the editors have done to their story.
Unless there has been a serious misrepresentation of your views or of facts as you expressed them, a polite letter explaining your concerns to the reporter or editor and thanking them for the opportunity to speak on important matters, will usually suffice.
If there are significant misrepresentations, call the reporter and discuss them. Call the producer or editor if you cannot obtain satisfaction. Ask for a retraction. Reserve this response for very serious matters.
If you have repeated unsatisfactory outcomes with interviews or stories, write to the producer or editor and confirm your willingness to be interviewed again, but not with that particular reporter. Politely and carefully explain your reasons.
Spokespersons should beware of questions that may lead to areas outside of their mandate (e.g. the fairness of the legal system, the appropriateness of sentences, the workings of new legislation, etc.).
Rehearsing interviews in the COSA helps focus the message, and shows all volunteers how media relations work.
G. Proactive is Better Than Reactive
In building a media "strategy," a COSA should be proactive rather than reactive. In other words it should not wait for headlines to appear before deciding to contact the media. Often a COSA can collaborate with local police and/or corrections officials in making public presentations. Many community groups are eager to host guest speakers to talk about community safety. Sometimes they will invite local journalists to cover the event.
COSA volunteers can write press releases, take telephone calls on local radio phone-ins, and participate in community forums that focus on community justice issues. These are some of the ways a COSA can increase its exposure and get its message across before a core member arrives in the community.
Advertising volunteer recruitment campaigns in community newspapers may attract journalists' attention. Hosting an orientation evening for potential volunteers is an excellent medium for public education. Inviting members of the media to these events is another way of being proactive in getting the message out.
When engaging media in these ways, a COSA should be prepared to answer questions like:
- Who are your volunteers?
- Where do they come from?
- Why have they chosen to be with (core member)?
- How long have they known the core member?
- How are volunteers trained?
- Why should the community trust them?
- Would you want (core member) living next door to you?
22 Circles of Support and Accountability wish to acknowledge and sincerely thank Dr. Lynne Van Luven, who is a media educator with the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria, for her help in developing and editing this.