Disaster Assistance Response Team
D. Working With the Media
The Team Leader sets the guidelines for relations with the media covering the disaster. If a Press Officer is a member of the DART, he or she is the contact point with the media. If not, the Team Leader takes on the direct media relations function. The following guidance is mainly for Press Officers. This guidance is helpful, however, to any member of the team who may become involved with responding to media requests.
2. Ensure Close Coordination
See Press Officer responsibilities in section F, part 3, of this chapter.
3. Develop a Strategy and Plan
- To ensure good media relations, be proactive, not just responsive.
- Working with the USAID Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs (LPA) and in close coordination with the Embassy Public Affairs Officer (PAO), develop a media strategy and plan that includes overall objectives, goals for visibility, primary and secondary audiences, target media, key messages, types and frequency of communications, and distribution channels.
4. Know Your Story
- Develop three core messages before speaking to the media. Think about the desired headline you want to see in the press the next day.
- Think about creative ways to "package" the message, not just answer media inquiries about humanitarian commodities delivered to the affected population.
- Include facts and figures and good examples and stories about improving the lives of real people. Effective messages are both emotional and rational.
- Provide visuals. DART members in action help to tell the story. Look for good backdrops for interviews and opportunities for photographers and camerapersons to capture powerful images.
- Find local people willing to share positive experiences about U.S. assistance. Beneficiaries can be great spokespeople.
5. Rules for Dealing With Reporters
- Be prepared:
- Do your homework. Research the reporter and other stories that he or she has written. Try to determine his or her angle or frame of reference before going into the interview.
- Develop talking points before the interview so that you can repeat your main messages and get the key points across.
- Set the ground rules beforehand:
- Agree to the length and format of the interview.
- Agree on if the comments will be on the record, on background, on deep background, or off the record. Do this up front because you can’t agree to these terms after the interview has already occurred.
- Never pick a fight with the news media:
- They air or print every day, and you don’t.
- There are no secrets:
- Assume that what you say and do will get on the air or the printed page.
- Although you can say things "off the record," this doesn’t mean the media won’t print it and give you attribution.
- Don’t assume anything:
- Reporters may not be well-informed or technically proficient about your profession.
- Explain terms to ensure they are understood.
- Keep it simple:
- Simplify and summarize your major points.
- Write facts and data down to hand out.
- Use plain English. Talk in a relaxed style that is aimed at laypersons, not subject experts.
- Avoid acronyms.
- Remember that the audience is the general public.
- Give reporters a good story to write, or they may find one you don’t like and write it:
- Listen for trends in the questions. Is the reporter asking leading questions? Are there obvious misconceptions? Offer to clarify or redirect.
- Understand that the media seeks truth but will settle for balance. Ask who else is being interviewed. An opposing view is sure to be included.
- If a critical or controversial story is going to be written anyway, the USG’s point of view should be in the story.
- Treat reporters professionally:
- Treat them with respect.
- Always answer their calls immediately. Carry a cell phone if possible.
- Create relationships. Many journalists cover disasters as part of their "beat."
- Don’t lie:
- Make sure your information is accurate.
- Remember, your comments don’t have to be all encompassing. You don’t have to tell a reporter the DART’s perspective on everything.
- If you don’t know something, say so. Take the question, get the answer, and get back to the reporter.
- Never speculate.
- Never speak out of your area of specialization, which is humanitarian aid. Don’t answer questions about USG relations with the affected country or another nation, or what security forces should be doing. Let the proper agency, such as the State Department or DOD, answer those questions.
- Before you do an interview, decide what you can and can’t discuss–and stick to it.
- Choose your words carefully and well. They will likely be reported as you say them.
- Be repetitive. Repetition is the essence of retention. The public will remember what they see, hear, and read repeatedly in the media.
- Use objective and authoritative sources of information to back up your statements to reporters, if you can.
- Try to anticipate questions. If you can’t answer or you don’t know the answer, get back to the reporter after you are asked such questions so you can give a considered response.
- Always correct any wrong information immediately.