Dear New Politician,
Congratulations. I know this can be overwhelming for a first-timer. Policy papers, rulebooks, orientation sessions, travel, finding an apartment, wrapping up campaign paperwork & finances, etc. Here in Canada, we just had an election, and almost 200 out of 338 Members of Parliament elected are first-timers (you may be one of them).
So, worrying about the media is probably the least of your concerns — after all, you’ve been elected. Job is done, right? You can exhale now. Wrong! You’re just getting started and the next few months are crucial. So, strap in.
You see, getting elected involved you dealing with local media. Now you have to deal with them, as well as with National, Provincial or State media in the capitol — people who cover politics full time (including bloggers who can be very influential). They are typically more experienced and have seen, heard and written it all. And, I will tell you right now that first impressions with the political media are lasting impressions. So, you’ve been warned.
So, I know you’re busy — let’s cut to the chase.
Here are 3 timeless tips I’ve come up with to help you prepare for the important task of communicating to your constituents through the media. There are many more — but I’m keeping this as brief as I can (under 1000 words).
- Hire Smart: You will need a communications director/officer/liaison. This role is crucial because what they say and do with the media will reflect on you. These roles, especially in the office of a new politician, have long hours and crappy pay. So, you won’t be hiring a senior communicator. Look for someone who respects the role of a journalist and has work ethic and solid judgment. You can’t teach those things. It’s recommended you have someone who has worked as a reporter at some point — someone who understands deadlines, someone who can anticipate some of the questions you will be asked. But, know this — not all former reporters are created equally. So, just having on their resume that they worked in media, doesn’t mean they were any good. Check references diligently. Maybe have your Party Communications people do some background on them and see what current journalists think of this person seeing how that’s who they’ll be dealing with. Don’t rush this hire. It’s too important. Side note, you will likely have an office manager or a Chief of Staff (especially if you’re fortunate enough to be selected for a Cabinet post). Make sure they also respect the role of the media — otherwise they will simply overrule your communications person at every turn and then you have problems.
- Get Media-Training: Media training is crucial for all first-time politicians given how much you will be dealing with reporters. First of all, make sure the trainer has extensive experience as an actual reporter. Check credentials of the actual trainer and not just the company. The training should teach you what journalists expect from you and how to properly prepare for, and execute, the toughest of interviews. It should be a full day session with a small group so you can get a couple of mock interviews in with critique. Push back if your party tries to jam you in a large group training session with 20-30 people for 2-4 hours as a way to save money and time. I had a political party try to hire me for this kind of session before and I refused because it’s useless and will only confuse participants. Push back on this. It’s as important as any training you will receive because if you screw up with the media early and often, you likely won’t get re-elected and everything else becomes irrelevant.
- Be Responsive: I have seen this more times than I count — a politician runs for office and during the campaign they are 100% accessible. A reporter calls for a quote and they’re on it right away. They are accessible and available at all times. And, then they get elected and everything changes overnight. Suddenly, reporters can’t reach you. You don’t respond to emails quickly — or at all. And, that silence can be deafening. Look — reporters understand it’s not a free-for-all and that you now have to get clearance for some interviews through central communications — but the least you can do is respond quickly to say you got their message and are working on it. Be honest. Simply say you need to check on a few things first to make sure you have all your facts and context. Ask them their deadline and promise them you’ll get back to them on time — and actually get back to them on time. And, if you party’s central communications is not responsive to these issues and has a “war on the media” approach, then you have MUCH bigger problems at play. Always try your best to facilitate a media request. Reporters won’t always be happy with what they get but at least ensure they know you’re trying to help them — and not hinder them.
There it is. Good luck. If you have some time on the plane, here are a few other blogs (with more detail) you may find helpful required reading:
More recommended blog posts: