The Balance Wheel: Spring 2003
In response to questions posed on the ACI listserv, we asked Lydia Saldana to share her vast knowledge of media relations training, and how we can approach this often last minute request from our agency leaders.
Media Training for the Sometimes Reluctant Natural Resource Professional
By: Lydia Saldana, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Communications Director
Not too many years back, the Law Enforcement Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) adhered to an unwritten media policy: If you see a reporter, run as quickly as possible in the opposite direction.
While that might be a slight exaggeration, it exemplified the attitude of Texas Game Wardens toward the media in the early 90s. Many wildlife and fisheries biologists as well as some state park staff shared that opinion. I joined Texas Parks and Wildlife in 1990 after 10 years as a broadcast journalist, reporting for television stations in Dallas and Austin. At first I was viewed with a bit of suspicion. “Here comes the media!” some of my colleagues would joke whenever I joined a discussion or meeting. It took a few years to convince folks that I was actually on their side and there are benefits to having a good working relationship with media.
During this same time period TPWD began beefing up its communications functions. We launched a weekly PBS series, a radio program, hired additional staff to increase our media relations functions beyond the traditional outdoor press, and created a new video news report program to ensure that conservation messages are delivered in the medium (TV) in which most Americans receive their daily dose of news.
One other important function that began during this time was media training for TPWD staff. This training is offered to all divisions and is customized for the audience. A state park manager’s need for media coverage of a park event is a completely different need than a wildlife biologist who might take a call from a reporter asking for a response to an anti-hunting demonstration or a game warden faced with a horde of TV cameras covering a boat accident with multiple fatalities.
The Law Enforcement Division requested one hour of training during the regular course of instruction for game warden cadets in 1996. The following year they requested a two-hour course. In 1998 they requested half-day training. Since 1999, we’ve done a full day’s worth of instruction in media training. The eight-hour course includes a “surprise” television interview at the beginning of the day to benchmark abilities. We then have instructional discussion, review and critique TV news clips, and conclude the day with an on-camera mock television news interview with every single cadet.
I believe this kind of training is one of the most important things we do. We only have a few media relations folks in Austin. We cannot possibly cover all 254 counties in Texas adequately. Without well-trained folks in the field, our jobs would be much more difficult and our agency would not be as effective in getting conservation messages to the public.
As a result of the law enforcement commitment to this training, we now have wardens in the field who have taken the initiative to develop relationships with local media. Some have taken the ball and run with it and are doing weekly newspaper guest columns and even local radio programs. Just a few years ago the Law Enforcement Director named a media relations contact for districts across the state. As a result, some 30 senior wardens who had not received the training during their cadet classes prior to 1996 were brought to Austin for the full-day course. We now have a network of trained media specialists across the state.
This process obviously did not happen overnight. It takes time to develop relationships within your own organization, and the trust and confidence of colleagues. Even harder won is the acknowledgement that communications professionals have much to offer professionals in other parts of the agency.
Below are a few tips that may help you get ready to provide effective media training.
Our preparations for media communications courses these days are minimal. Once the investment of time is made in developing the initial course outline, it’s simply a matter of refining the course for the particular audience. At TPWD we have a common computer drive that contains folders with media training dating back almost 10 years. We don’t re-create the wheel every time we prepare for a course. We simply customize what’s already been developed.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
PROVIDE RESOURCE MATERIALS
CUSTOMIZE THE COURSE
HAVE SOME FUN
When time allows for mock on-camera interviews, have some fun with that, too. It’s important to get across the basic questions and answers they might face from reporters, but some of the best sound bites I’ve ever heard have come in response to a real zinger of a question I might toss in from left field to an interview subject I believe will handle it well. As I explain to these interview “victims” after the interview (and the laughter in the room has subsided), what I put them through is likely worse than anything they will face in the real world. If they can handle my zingers, they are ready for anything. It’s important to moderate this approach. You don’t want to be a stand-up comic, and you don’t want to scare employees into thinking every media interview will be a hostile “60 Minutes” experience, but you do want to keep your audience members engaged and on their toes.
ACCESS AVAILABLE INFORMATION AND RESOURCES
If you need some help from Texas, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-389-4557.