Right sound bites: how to convert complex issues into digestable explanations
David R. Voss
How do you get reporters to pay attention? How do you get them off your back? Different problems, same theme: Managing the media.
Out of all the frustrations that politicians have experienced over the years with the press, a few basic guidelines have emerged. Practice breeds confidence once you’re confident, performance rises. Regardless of your strategy or your personality, you have to understand your local media, warm up to the key player and adapt accordingly. Just as all politics is local, so is all media.
The following guidelines can help prevent media hassles, especially as you try to control your message and gain favorable coverage. I call them the “Ten Bs.”
1. BE REALISTIC. The press is not your PR machinery. It faces time and space limitations, lots of races to cover and a penchant for digging up dirt. Before peddling news, understand news values and try to think like a journalist. The average television sound bite for a politician is 12 seconds; when speaking in front of the cameras, make the most of your time. These facts of media life are immutable, so accept them and move on with your strategy.
2. BE PREPARED. Know the hot buttons and hot-shot reporters in your community. Understand their organizational structure and which editors are really calling the shots. Never do an interview unless you’re ready. If you need a delay — even if there’s a microphone in your face — ask for their deadline, tell them you have to collect some information and offer to get back to them at a precise appointment. That buys you time without putting them off.
3. BE ACCESSIBLE. Work on long-term media relations; they’re really human relations. That means being there when they need you, so they’ll be there when you need them. Avoid saying “no comment” — it makes you look guilty or you’re hiding something. Answer these questions by explaining why you can’t comment, discussing general policy (instead of the specific issue) or by switching to something you can say.
4. BE HONEST. Admit bad news and move on to corrective action. It shows character and moves the media on to something else. Lying will come back to haunt you.
5. BE QUOTABLE. If the media is giving you a chance to be quoted, make it memorable. Try to create a catch phrase, putting your issues into plain English that connects with the voter. That is why I advise delay in certain circumstances; you must take the time to prepare a message designed for your targeted audience.
6. BE IN CONTROL. Once you say something quotable, make sure it’s quoted. This is accomplished by changing your pace when you get to the good part, delivering it slowly and distinctly, and couching it in a 20-second sound bite. When the reporter wants to talk about something else, segue back to your quote — that means working your key phrase into the answer no matter what the question. Use short lists when you need to convert a complex issue into a digestable explanation.
7. BE LIKED. TV is an emotional, subjective medium. People will remember how they feel about you more than what you say. Remain your normal, lovable self — don’t sound “official” or pompous. Talk to reporters before going on camera and then pretend you are continuing the conversation, using conversational language and looking the reporter straight in the eye. Stand or sit up straight, wear clothing and accessories that fit the occasion and don’t distract from the real message — you.
8. BE INNOVATIVE. Getting press is the toughest challenge for local races; you can’t accomplish it in a routine way. You have to step out of the crowd. Press releases about promotions and positions on issues won’t cut it. Remember earlie when we talked about knowing your local press and thinking like a journalist? Here’s where that advice comes into play. You need action, extraordinary examples, prominent figures, children, human interest and timeliness. In other words, do it, don’t say it. Create media events, not press conferences. Attach yourself to a national or state story with a local angle. Provide news tips (a story idea rather than a complete press release) to the reporter who already ha an interest in the subject.
9. BE ASSERTIVE. Don’t lay back and hope media coverage just happens. Make it happen! Forcefully volunteer information and counter-quotes when the reporter obviously has a bias or slant. Talk to the City Editor about problems with your coverage or the Editorial Board about issues. Seek editorial endorsements; to get them, you’ll often have to ask for meetings with the local editorial honchos.
10. NEVER SCREW UP ON A SLOW NEWS DAY. Remember that news is relative. The importance of your news depends on what else is going on that day. Use it to your advange. Create news when weekend TV reporters are looking for an angle an get rid of bad news in the middle of the week when there’s a lot going on.
David R. Voss is a professional political and corporate media consultant and trainer. He was a journalist and broadcaster before conducting several statewid political and issue campaigns.
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