21st Century Librarians Make Allies of the Press


As a 21st Century Librarian, if you are innovative and cutting edge…the day will come when the press knocks on your door. Sometimes that is positive – sometimes its negative…and sometimes, if poorly handled, it can be DIRE!

Dealing with the Press (print or television or bloggers) is a situation that may cause even the most capable librarian or director’s blood to run cold. “The newspaper is on the phone for you.” Or “The channel 6 news van just pulled up outside.” is enough to make any of us want to run for the bathroom and hide. Especially if you do not know why they are there! However by keeping a few key things in mind (and with some experience) everyone can use their relationships with the press to their greatest advantage.

  1. Never Let ‘em See You Sweat!
    Whether it is a positive story and the reporter is there at your request or a surprise visit asking for a comment about some new political/policy/budget situation, remember that you are in control of YOU. Take a deep breath-focus on the questions being asked- decide what you want to say and then say it confidently! If you need a moment, take it. YOU run the interview. Do not BE run.
    There is nothing worse than finding out news FROM the reporter! Things like “SO! How do you feel about losing that $2M from next years proposed budget allocation?” Speechless doesn’t begin to cover the possible reactions!
  2. Have a Designated Library Spokesperson.
    This is not about being controlling or hampering freedom of speech. It is about controlling the message that comes from the Library. That message should convey the spirit of your culture and ethics in every phrase.
  3. Talk in Sound Bites & Manage You Own Story.
    No matter how comfortable you are with a journalist, it is never wise to talk unreservedly. When you are on the record, give them the information they need but attempt to talk in short meaningful sentences or ‘sound bites’ that will simply be too good for them to pass up printing! As you hone this skill, you can almost be assured that the journalist will pick up on your sound bites and those will be what they use. Ready-made sound bites make their job easier and help shape the story that YOU want told.
    Manage the story yourself. Do not rely on the news journalist to present the story the way that you think that they will. Or the way that they should. Make sure that you present the information that you would like to see the story reflect by crafting your responses in a way that you give the information you want highlighted.  This will give a better chance that the story will cover the ideas that you’re wanting to highlight.
  4. Go “Off the Record”!
    In addition, just as you hold your ethics dear on patron privacy, freedom to read, etc., a true journalist holds the “off the record” statements made to them very dear. If you feel that additional context would be helpful to the journalist in writing their story but you do not want to risk being quoted on delicate back stories, ask the reporter if you can talk to them off record to provide them with greater detail and more context. Almost every time they will jump at the opportunity to gather more intel even if it’s something that they can’t directly use. In employing this tactic you garner their trust, their goodwill, and maybe even a few brownie points if you point them in the right direction to gather more information for their story. However, the greatest benefit of this tactic is that it provides the reporter with the appropriate context for the story and if, as you should, you have done nothing inappropriate that the newspaper is covering, such as unethical handling of the patron, policy, or financial issue, etc., then you have nothing to fear. In addition, giving them a deeper understanding of the situation will often lead to a more empathetic slant of the story toward the library – if appropriate.
    In addition we all know that much of what we do is a matter of public record. If the journalist is requesting information that you know exists in the public record such as board meeting minutes agendas or other documents don’t make the reporter dig for this information. Rather – offer it up! There is a good chance they will eventually find it and if you have given it to them rather than making them work for it garners a spirit of trust, collegiality and teamwork that will often times result in better press for the library.
  5. Use the Royal “We”.
    When you’re being interviewed make sure that you refer to the library administration and Board of Trustees rather than to yourself personally as making decisions. Not only is this good form and probably completely accurate, this will give your sound bites the ring of authority. In addition Board of Trustees members love to see that credit given to them in publications, and it will go a long way in garnering good will. In addition, always remember that you are not being interviewed as an individual, you ALWAYS represent the organization. Speaking ‘on behalf’ is your job as the spokesperson. In that sense, referring to the organization with the Royal “We” is completely acceptable and expected.
  6. Don’t Get Punked! At least not on camera!
    When it comes to a television interview, ask the reporter what questions they will be asking you BEFORE they begin filming. More specifically, BEFORE they even get the video camera out of the bag! Tell them you want to talk “off the record” before you begin. If there is no hidden agenda, they should have absolutely no problem in telling you their interview questions. And trust me, they do have the questions that they intend to ask long before they arrived at your location. If they say they are just going to “wing it” that should send up a red flag for you and then you need to push to find out what the questions are and exactly what the point of the story is. Never be shy about asking any reporter what is the point of the story they’re writing. It is entirely possible that the story may change for them over time as they gather information but it is totally appropriate for you to ask the angle that they’re planning for the story. Remember: It’s your organization.
  7. When Necessary, Be “Unavailable” instead of “No Comment”.
    In some instances you will be contacted for a story that you either for legal reasons cannot speak about or would simply prefer not to because it does not seem that there is any upside to giving a comment or statement to the press. These could include a story that you are unprepared to address, has legal ramifications of any statements, or is a personnel matter that should not be discussed. Always use “No comment” as an option of last resort. Remember when you are reading a newspaper article what no comment looks like to you. Inherent in the statement no comment is a statement. What does sound much better is “The library spokesperson was unavailable or could not be reached for comment”. Use this tactic wisely. And only when you feel that you have truly ruled out that there is any acceptable statement that can be made. Consider the statement “The library is greatly distressed/disappointed/concerned that this has occurred. We are hopeful that there will be a satisfactory resolution for all concerned.” This is a broad open ended and empathetic statement that can realistically be applied to almost any distressing situation. While this is a useful tactic, be aware that you also give up the opportunity to add your organization’s perspective to the piece. Only you know if silence is better.
  8. Press Response Should be Part of Every Plan!
    Plan Ahead!! Know your response or sound bite before the reporter ever knocks on your door or rings your phone. For example – Make sure that you know how you’re going to present that fabulous new $60,000 innovative service in a time of deep budget cuts. How will you answer the tough questions? How will you explain your decision making? Can you? A basic truth: If you Can’t defend it…Don’t DO it! If you follow this basic rule, you should never worry. Not everyone will always agree with your choices but at least they will understand them and have faith in the integrity of your decision making process.
  9. You will be Misquoted! 
    Most important – always remember that you WILL be misquoted. It is not a matter of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’. How to respond becomes the question. If it is a significant issue that needs a retraction or correction, address it with the reporter and if you do not get an appropriate response be sure to contact the editor. However, unless the error is so substantial that it simply MUST be corrected, shrug it off and remember that this is a part of the game of playing with the press.
  10. You need the Press and They need YOU! Play Nice!
    Remember that the newspaper or television reporter needs you as badly as you need them and often times more. Yes – you need them too when you want them to cover a big piece of news or new program or award. But your story is their bread-and-butter, especially when the story isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. When those tough political, policy, or budget stories come, all the press outlets will be knocking to get the best and first scoop. With this thought in mind it is safe to consider that it is not in their best interest nor should it be their desire to make an enemy out of the library. This means they should try not to misquote you, surprise you or position you in a way that is (unnecessarily) harmful for the library. (That does not mean that it will not show up in the press if you do something really stupid! They are in the business of the “public’s right to know”.) If it feels like you were dealing with a journalist who has no goodwill toward the library, or seeks out harmful angles to create a more “sensational” story, you have one option – Don’t deal with them again. Become dramatically unavailable to them for any of their stories. Invariably, they will either realize they have to deal more fairly with you or, if the breakdown in the relationship causes the paper or channel to miss a good story or scoop, it is likely the editor will assign another reporter to your beat.And if, dear reader, as you are reading this blog you were thinking “Well, that’s all well and good but the only time I ever have to talk to the newspaper is to get an article in about storytime or summer reading”. That way of thinking will leave you vulnerable when the unexpected and unfortunate day comes when there is a big story and you need a relationship with the press. When a branch closes, a policy is attacked, a budget is cut or you are being sued, these are the times that having a reporter that you already know and have a trusting friendly relationship with covering that story will be invaluable. Treating the journalist as a colleague can be extremely helpful to you by allowing you to state the Library’s position publicly or giving you good PR for things that are happening in the library. That said – never forget that at the end of the day they are a journalist and they are there to get the story.

Because this is a tough topic…One more tip for good measure:

Be Gracious! Take the High Road.
Libraries are like Girl Scout cookies – everyone loves us. What they do not love is when public figures or groups start slinging mud. They may enjoy reading it but they will never forget that that is the type of person that you are and ergo the type of organization the Library is.

The only thing that slinging mud does is get you dirty too. If the story they’re reporting is a Library budget slashing by the City Council, take the highroad. Give them a soundbite of: “The Library understands that the city has serious financial challenges and that tough decisions have to be made.” Then gently make your case for why and how this is going to impact the library – again, without slinging mud or throwing someone else under the bus. Never take the offensive approach, because it doesn’t read well in print, and in a television interview you simply come off looking bitter. In addition, by attacking others you give the “opposition” something to attack you with. A gracious response will allow the public to have a spirit of goodwill and empathy toward the Library that all the fist pounding in the world cannot illicit.

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