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The Balance Wheel: Spring 2003

Inside This Issue | Past Issues | Contact Us

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.

microphoneMedia 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.

PREPARE
If you have never done a media course within your agency before, it’s important that you make a very good impression the first time out. Don’t try to wing it. Take the time to develop a thorough course outline. Pull together some relevant TV news or print clips. We have dubbed the media clip portion of our law enforcement training “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” We show some TV news examples of wardens doing an excellent job of communicating and some examples of sound bites that could be improved. The discussion is invaluable and it is the best way to make the point. We’ll view a clip and I’ll ask the cadets: “Can you see why it’s a good idea to take off those mirrored sunglasses when you do a TV news interview?”

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
It is important to learn as much as possible about the audience you are instructing. When we are faced with a roomful of game warden cadets, we can usually make the assumption that their media knowledge is limited. They will need to learn the basics of how a newspaper or TV newsroom operates to better understand how media relations work. On the other hand, we recently completed media training for state park interpreters. These folks were more experienced and did not require a Media 101 approach.

PROVIDE RESOURCE MATERIALS
Develop user-friendly course materials that employees can put to immediate, practical use. What they take back to the field is just as important as what they learn in the few hours you spend with them. At TPWD we’ve been fortunate to have recently completed a media communications guide that includes information on everything from how to write a news release to how to prepare for a TV news interview. It’s the most valuable item we provide to attendees of our media training courses.

CUSTOMIZE THE COURSE
A basic outline can be tweaked in a variety of ways to fit almost any audience. Examples should relate to the real-life media situations that your audience will face. Make sure to pull clips that are relevant. If you have the opportunity to do mock interviews, develop interview scenarios that are realistic and relevant. For the scenarios we create for the game warden training, we talk with other wardens and supervisors to come up with situations that have actually occurred with the media. The truth is often stranger than fiction. Some of this stuff we couldn’t possibly make up!

HAVE SOME FUN
Providing media training is one of my favorite things to do. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with my colleagues, and it shows. If you - like me - have a past life as a reporter, sharing those anecdotes from “the other side” not only enhances your credibility, it brings back some fond memories. And the feedback I’ve received from course attendees tells me those real-life examples are invaluable, not to mention often entertaining.

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
One of the best things about being a member of ACI is the wealth of resources and information available. Don’t hesitate to call on your ACI counterparts for assistance or advice.

If you need some help from Texas, I can be reached at lydia.saldana@tpwd.state.tx.us or 512-389-4557.