How to turn press officers from blockers to enablers

There was an air of controlled anger in the newsroom in whose nest I was cuckooing yesterday.

Within the space of ten minutes, two mini-rows had developed.

And they both centred on press offices – in this case, police and council.

The issues testing the patience of reporters and newsdesks were fairly simple, and followed a fairly well-trodden path.

The police press office was relaying a message that an officer didn’t want to talk about an issue of great community concern and interest.

The council press office appeared to take all day to discover that it wouldn’t be able to answer a query because a key official wasn’t in.

Amid the gnashing of teeth (and redrafting of newslists) over all this, another complaint emerged: the tendency of some press officers to adopt a default position of ‘this isn’t a story.’

I hold no brief for press officers, although some of them have made it into my Facebook friends circle.

Whenever I need cheering up, I dive into a special file of beautifully-worded, devastating critiques that I have emailed to various press officers over the years. My favourite was sent after it emerged that a police press officer had told us someone who had died was still alive.

But here’s the thing. Press officers are people, just like you and I. Just like journalists, in fact.

My wonderful colleague Tristan Cork from the Western Daily Press divides them in two: the blockers and enablers.

My view is that it may not always be that simple.

Whether someone is a blocker or an enabler can depend on who they’re talking to. And it’s sometimes possible to convert a blocker into an enabler.

As with most journalism, it’s all about relationships.

I haven’t just expressed my anger at press offices by the medium of email. I’ve had some humdingers of rows down the phone, too.

But although the paper may have gone to bed on an argument, I’ve always tried to resolve whatever problems there were once the dust has settled.

There’s no rocket science in the fact that specialist politics and local government reporters get the most out of council press offices, or that crime correspondents can wheedle information that no one else can out of police spokesmen and women.

They have the advantage of greater background knowledge, but they will also be the people who ring and email that communications office the most.

If they’re doing their jobs properly, they will also come armed with the right questions and the right evidence from contacts outside the official channels – from rogue politicians, rank and file coppers and Town Hall whistleblowers.

Getting the most out of those official gatekeepers is no different to working a patch.

We can climb on our ‘right to know’, ‘you’re spending our money’ accountability high horses all we like.

And that’s a drum we have to keep banging.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Make the right connections, do your homework, give them enough time, treat them like the fully-rounded human beings that they are, and you might find the wheels of bureaucracy running that little bit more smoothly.


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