Each time I attend a meeting where public officials are gathered and the subject of the mass media comes up, the room lights up. The stories of deep frustration with the media simply flow out of them like melted butter out of a jug. The complaints are legion:
- Those terrible journalists distort my views.
- The media are instruments of terror...virtually.
- They don't get anything serious; they are lazy and uninformed.
- They are in bed with sinister forces, and corrupt proprietors.
- They are not to be trusted at all.
- As the discussion progresses, the authoritarian impulse comes out. You hear calls for strict regulation of the mass media in the particular developing country. Yes, the officials say, the media must be brought to heel, reigned in.
As I listen, I realize that they know - these public officials - that they need the media on their side if they are going to be effective. And this is the crucial point. To the extent that public opinion is important to your effectiveness, you need good relations with the media. You need the media to, among other things, raise your issue up the public agenda, influence attitudes and opinions, correct misperceptions around your issue, win friends and so on.
What I tend to say at these moments - if I have the opportunity to do so- is simply this: Grow up! The mass media do not exist to make public officials comfortable; rather, the opposite. Then I make four recommendations:
- If you have to deal with the media, get some media training. Every official in a public role needs one.
- Build in-house communication capacity whatever your agency does.
- Have a proactive media relations strategy. Don't wait for a crisis to hit.
- And if there are weaknesses in the media system in your country - and there usually will be - support efforts to fix these weaknesses. Don't just stand around and moan; do something.
Photo Credit: Flickr user h.koppdelaney